Hunting Act 2004

– in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 22nd March 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 6:00 pm, 22nd March 2007

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise before the House the issue of the enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004.

As has often been said, hundreds of hours were taken up in this Chamber debating whether or not there should be a ban on hunting with packs of hounds. Parliament voted for that ban on numerous occasions, and finally the ban became law. It is axiomatic that when the Chamber passes law, we expect it to be enforced. It is quite wrong if a group of people believe that they are uniquely above the law and, furthermore, that their breaches of the law may be blatant and rejoiced in. I hate to say it, but I have even heard hon. Members boasting that they have been hunting since the passing of the ban. We need to ask why the ban is not being properly enforced.

To date, there has been only one successful prosecution for hunting with packs of hounds. The huntsman of the Exmoor Foxhounds was convicted of illegal hunting, although an appeal is outstanding. The interesting thing is that the judge, when summing up, said explicitly that there are

"only a small number of wooden areas on Exmoor" and thus, in his opinion, that

"flushing cannot take place legally anywhere on Exmoor."

Yet, I have not heard that the Exmoor Foxhounds has been disbanded. I have not heard that hunting on Exmoor has ceased. Indeed, all that I have heard is that a public meeting was laid on by the hunt to protest that the law dared to take its course and that a conviction had actually been secured. The sad thing is that that prosecution was not brought by the police or sanctioned by the Crown Prosecution Service. It was actually brought by the League Against Cruel Sports.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am not well enough informed about all the details of the case to which the right hon. Lady is referring, but she knows the way in which we approach such things in the House. I trust that the matters that she is discussing are not, at the moment, sub judice.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

As I said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, an appeal is outstanding. However, what the judge said has been put in the public domain and is well known. I merely cite it and point out that the prosecution—again, this is a matter of public fact—was not undertaken by the police or sanctioned by the CPS, but brought by the League Against Cruel Sports.

An impending prosecution—I shall give no details at all in case I fall foul of your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is being brought by the Avon and Somerset police. It is generally believed that the source of encouragement for the police to take action on that occasion was the success of the Exmoor prosecution—or, at any rate, its success hitherto, pending the outcome of the appeal. We have to ask why the Act is not being enforced, even though the ban is broken blatantly day after day in the fox hunting season, and we have to ask what the Government intend to do to ensure that it is enforced.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Most of the hunts have moved on to drag hunting, lure hunting and so on. An awful lot of the hunts talk of disobeying the law but are actually obeying it, and that worries me considerably.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Some hunts, but only a very small number, have registered as drag hunts. Only a small number have done so because once they register they are bound by drag-hunt rules and are subject to the discipline of drag hunting. Rather than convert to drag hunting, most of them say that they are not chasing live quarry but are flushing, following a trail or doing something else, because they do not want that discipline. The hon. Gentleman raises a most important point: there is a mechanism by which they can say that they are doing one thing but, in effect, do another. I will come on to one of the ways in which that has been monitored.

Of course, we have known for a long time—we knew it long before hunting was made illegal—that hunts cause tremendous problems. They disrupt traffic, block roads, kill domestic animals, and let hounds get on to railway lines, sometimes with horrible consequences. If any other group in society regularly caused that amount of disruption, grief and trouble, and carried on doing so when a law had been passed to try to stop their activities, there would be an outcry, but that one group in society seriously thinks that it is above the law.

I was asking why enforcement is not as effective as it should be, and and the answer partly because there is a lack of understanding on the part of the police. In one hilarious conversation that took place between the police and a hunt monitor who had called them, the policeman said, "But, madam, as long as they're not killing the fox, they're not committing an offence." There is an absence of understanding generally throughout the police force, and an absence of willingness but greater understanding among the senior part of the police force. Let me say, as any reasonable person would, that we know very well that the police are completely overburdened and overworked; they have plenty of things to worry about, and one can understand the temptation for them to say that the issue does not matter, but it does matter if the message is going out that the law may be broken, blatantly and deliberately, and that nothing will be done about it.

I turn to the activity of hunt monitors. I stress that I am talking about monitors and not saboteurs. Monitors are generally elderly, inoffensive ladies—I have met a lot of them—who go to hunts with cameras and who film what is happening. They have to do that because the police are not doing it. If we leave it to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the League Against Cruel Sports and other such bodies to gather the evidence to mount prosecutions, which the police take over only at the last minute, if at all, we must have people who gather the evidence. At the moment, that is done by hunt monitors, and I pay tribute to them, because some of them are extremely brave. They are inoffensive, modest people whose motivation is simply to try to ensure that the law is upheld.

There have been assaults on hunt monitors. There is a film in my possession that I intend to make available to Members of the House later this year—after the decision on Exmoor has been confirmed, so that I do not risk having my film pulled half way through. It shows a large number of incidents involving hunt monitors, including direct assaults and damage to cars. Hunt monitors call the police, but the police do not always arrive. Although they sometimes do, I cannot show that on my film. In one instance, a lady in her car was hemmed in by two hunt vehicles, or vehicles belonging to people supporting the hunt. She was unable to move and was being threatened—a man was actually bashing on the window of the car—but there was not a policeman in sight. That is simply not acceptable.

If the police are rather torpid on the issue, the Crown Prosecution Service is even worse. Its default position is that if there is a doubt, and if it is a bit difficult to try to work it out, the benefit of the doubt is given to the hunt. That attitude must be challenged, as it is crucial that the CPS understands the law on hunting. It should not be the case, as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals put it to me today, that those cases should arrive in the in-tray of some junior person in the CPS who finds it all a bit difficult, so the cases sit there for five and a half months and, under statutory limitations, run out. The CPS must get a grip on the problem.

The Under-Secretary is nodding—I am grateful that she is doing so—and I hope that she turns that nod into verbal reassurance when she replies. I have seen that film and the detail that it provides, and I have to say that I was shocked. Even though I knew that hunting was going on, I did not quite realise the risk that hunt monitors ran. We saw the hunting brigade's contempt for the law when some of its members entered the Chamber, believing that they had the right to do so and to defy the law. Because they have been doing that for several centuries, they believe that they have a God-given right to be above the law.

I mentioned one way to monitor hunting. It is very expensive, but it has been done successfully. People can go up above the hunt in a helicopter that has monitoring equipment. When that happens, the hunt suddenly obeys the law, so no one sets off after a fox and no one encourages the hounds—they sit there. That would be a very good solution if only there were a billionaire benefactor in the animal welfare lobby who would enable us to put helicopters up over every hunt. Very soon, people would be bored, because all that they could do would be to sit there, obeying the law. They would not follow the hunts, which would not have any supporters and would go broke. Failing a billionaire benefactor, may I suggest to the Minister that the occasional police helicopter over a hunt—I am not saying that we should divert huge resources—would act as a dampener on its very unlawful activities?

I have a final suggestion to make. I do not expect the Minister to respond on the hoof tonight, but I hope that she will contemplate it seriously. As I said, if the police are not going to go out and collect the evidence, someone has to do so. I believe that we should license hunt monitors—they would be checked to ensure that they did not have a criminal record, and would be respectable people, not "sabs"—and it should be made an offence to obstruct a licensed hunt monitor, in the same way that it is an offence to obstruct a policeman.

One thing that will be shown on that film, apart from the shocking assaults on hunt monitors, is the way in which the hunt deliberately sets out to make sure that those people cannot film. Its members stand in front of them, put horses in front of them, and hem in their vehicles so that they cannot move. If it were an offence to do so, and if the hunt monitors were licensed to film, we might have more law-abiding hunts—if there is such a thing and it is not a contradiction in terms. I look forward to the Minister at least telling me that she will have give that proposal serious consideration, and to hearing any suggestions from the Government to make sure, first, that illegal hunting is monitored and, secondly, that monitors are given better protection.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 6:13 pm, 22nd March 2007

May I start by congratulating Miss Widdecombe on securing this Adjournment debate? I acknowledge her longstanding and ongoing commitment to the hunting legislation and, indeed, the whole issue. It is a timely point at which to discuss the enforcement of the legislation. There is plenty to say in the debate, and she is right that there is still a great deal of activity. However, we contend that that activity centres on drag hunting, and I hope to be able to unravel some of the issues this evening. It is an interesting debate and the matter should be scrutinised.

Before dealing with enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004, it is important to clarify what exactly the legislation does and does not ban. The Act came into force on 18 February 2005. It bans all hunting with dogs of wild mammals in England and Wales, apart from a few tightly drawn exemptions set out in the Act, which allow for pest control and other essential activities to be undertaken, subject to strict conditions. The ban covers the hunting of all wild mammals, including hare, deer, fox and mink. It also completely bans hare coursing.

The Act does not prevent hunts from meeting up and riding with their dogs, provided they stay within the law. It does not prevent legal equestrian activities, such as trail or drag hunting.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

One of the major problems is that there is incitement by some hunts to break the law. I agree with Miss Widdecombe about monitors and that they need protection, but there is incitement to break the law, and I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will deal severely with that.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

If my hon. Friend bears with me, I shall come to some of those issues shortly.

The Act does not prevent hunts from meeting and it does not prevent activities such as trail or drag hunting. We would have no difficulty with those activities, and I noticed that the right hon. Lady feels the same way. The Act does not prevent farmers and others from undertaking legal pest control activities, such as using up to two dogs to stalk and flush out foxes and other wild mammals, providing they are shot as soon as possible after being found or flushed out. All the other activities that hunts have traditionally engaged in, such as dog walking, puppy shows, hunt balls and point-to-point racing, are equally unaffected. Those are perfectly acceptable social activities.

The criminal offences created by the Hunting Act 2004 are punishable by a fine of up to £5,000, the maximum that magistrates courts may impose. The Act gives the police powers to search and seize vehicles, animals or other articles used for illegal hunting, with a related power of entry to land, but not to private houses. The Act also allows the courts to order the forfeiture of vehicles, dogs or hunting articles and gives the court the discretion to order their disposal or destruction.

Operational decisions on the arrest and prosecution of those taking part in illegal hunting activity are a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities. The police have made it clear that they will enforce the hunting ban, and the Association of Chief Police Officers has issued guidance for police forces on the practical aspects of enforcing the Act. The police are treating offences in the same way as other wildlife offences with similar penalties. The police also have obligations under the Director of Public Prosecution's guidance on charging, which ensures that all offences under the Hunting Act are referred to a Crown prosecutor for early consultation and charging decision. That is in line with the procedure for all other crimes.

I hear what the right hon. Lady says about the case to which she referred, which is in the public domain—she is right, although it is as well that we are wary of crossing that line. The individual to whom she referred was one of the first people to be convicted under the Hunting Act. His case was brought privately by the League Against Cruel Sports and later taken over by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The case led anti-hunting groups to question whether the police were acting properly before cases reached the CPS. Following a meeting with anti-hunt groups on 20 October 2006, Assistant Chief Constable John Sampson, the ACPO lead on the issue, sent a reminder to ACPO colleagues about their obligations under the DPP's guidance on charging to ensure that all offences under the Act are referred to a Crown prosecutor for early consultation, which is a crucial point. I heard what the right hon. Lady said about how these matters are dealt with by the CPS, which will, I am sure, pay attention.

Early consultation and charging decisions are in line with the procedure for all other crime. Lessons have been learned from that. The right hon. Lady referred to one conviction. In fact, there were three convictions in 2005. Figures are not yet available for 2006.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

If the right hon. Lady is going to ask me for further details of those convictions, I do not have them with me.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I could help the Minister, because I do have them.

I was very careful about the way in which I phrased it. One conviction was for hunting with a pack of hounds, and the others concerned individuals with two dogs.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I accept that the right hon. Lady has in-depth knowledge of this matter. Nevertheless, it is important to clarify the point about convictions.

It is not for the Government to direct chief constables on how to deploy their resources to deal with hunting. Chief constables are best placed to decide how to deploy the resources available according to operational priorities and objectives. While we have not made funding available specifically to tackle illegal hunting, the rural policing fund was introduced part way through 2000-01, when some £15 million was made available to enhance the policing service in rural areas at no cost to metropolitan forces. The fund comprised £30 million per annum benefiting 31 shire forces. In 2006-07, Ministers agreed to amalgamate the rural policing fund with three other specific grants—special priority payments, London and south-east allowances and forensic grants—to create a single special formula grant to give police authorities more control over how the grant may be used.

Three individuals have been prosecuted under the Act, and there are, as the right hon. Lady said, other cases in the pipeline. Court proceedings data for 2006 will be available in the autumn of 2007, when we will see the outcome of several ongoing operations. Anyone convicted of offences under the Act will get a criminal record as well as a fine of up to £5,000. Those are appropriate and proportionate sanctions for such an offence.

Let me return to what the right hon. Lady said about the need for evidence and the conversations that she reported hearing, with even hon. Members discussing hunting. Anybody who has any evidence should make it available to the police, who have made it clear, as we see in the ACPO guidance, that they will act upon evidence received. We must make it clear that nobody, inside the House or not, is above the law. In a democratic society, we cannot pick and choose what laws we obey, and hunts must obey the law as it stands. It would come as no surprise to us that hunts want the Act to be repealed. For whatever reason they have remained in business—perhaps to try to outlast the ban and wait for a change—there should be consequences if they do not abide by the law. That will depend on evidence being available and action being taken.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I think that the Minister will acknowledge that the hunts are carrying on because they are waiting for a change, which they think will take place at the next general election. They hope that the legislation will then be repealed, which is even greater reason to make their lives uncomfortable between now and then.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said, for whatever reason they are continuing, the law must be obeyed, and nobody is above the law. We also have plenty of evidence that many of those doing drag and trial hunting are getting on well and are unlikely to want to revert to their previous practice. The vast majority of the public still support a hunting ban—they were not just supporting it when legislation was before the House and interest in the issue peaked—and any future Government of any party will need to pay attention to that. The legislation is in force and must be adhered to.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

In the four minutes remaining, I hope that the Minister will address the right hon. Lady's point that it is important not only to get evidence but to protect the evidence givers and gatherers. Incitement to break the law is also a tremendously important issue, and we should seriously address that on a national basis.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said, anyone who has evidence should make that available. I acknowledge what the right hon. Lady said about helicopters, and serious concerns have been expressed, including by members of ACPO, that a danger might be posed to both humans and animals. We must pay attention to that. The advantage of having this debate is that all those undertaking the activity, dealing with it or enforcing the law will see that these are important issues that are still being considered by the House and the public.

I am aware that some commentators have suggested that the legislation has loopholes and that that has resulted in limited convictions. That is not the case. The Hunting Act makes it an offence for a person to hunt a wild animal with a dog unless the hunting is exempt. For the purposes of the Act, the word "hunting" has its ordinary English meaning, which includes searching for wild animals, chasing them or pursuing them for the purpose of catching or killing. Hunting requires an intention, on the part of the person rather than the dog—for example, to chase the quarry—so there can be no accidental hunting. We need to be clear about that.

I also acknowledge the point made by the right hon. Lady, and echoed by my hon. Friend Mr. Olner, about hunt monitors. She asked me to consider that point, and I undertake to reflect further on it. In practice, hunting includes a range of activities, from chasing an animal over many miles with the intention of killing it, to deliberately setting one's dog on to a wild animal with the intention of catching it or frightening it away. It would be for the police and prosecutors to decide whether to pursue individual cases and for the courts to decide whether an offence had been committed.

Inventive individuals can create a large number of theoretical scenarios to call the detail of any legislation into question. In practice, the courts apply common sense to clear legislation. The Hunting Act is clear legislation.

In summary, I must disagree with the right hon. Lady's contention that the Act is not being properly enforced. ACPO has made it clear on a number of occasions that it will enforce the hunting ban, and I am satisfied that that is being done. Having said that, I welcome the opportunity provided to debate the issue this evening, and am pleased that the concerns have been put on the record. I undertake to reflect further on her points.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine past Six o'clock.