Hunting Act 2004

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 22nd March 2007.

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

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.