I secured this debate to highlight the antisocial and criminal behaviour of a tiny minority of individuals who cause havoc in the countryside. These rural ruffians are blood sports enthusiasts who have been getting away with this lawless behaviour for far too long. To my mind, they are no different from the mindless yobs that blight some of our urban housing estates, but the police, regrettably, are turning a blind eye to their lawless behaviour.
I have been a trustee of the League Against Cruel Sports since 1979, and I was the press officer and then the chair of the Hunt Saboteurs Association 35 years ago, so I know from first-hand experience what these characters are capable of. I was regularly assaulted and threatened by hunt supporters, and I would like to give the House just one example of an incident that happened to me. Following a lengthy car chase, my vehicle was rammed by a supporter of the Quorn Hunt who was driving a Land Rover. Just a few minutes later, several other Quorn Hunt supporters used powerful catapults to fire steel ball-bearings at me. I was therefore delighted when Parliament struck a blow for decency by passing the Hunting Act 2004.
The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me—I am trying not to be facetious in asking the question, but would he at least declare to the House any criminal record or record of a similar nature that he obtained while being a hunt saboteur, because I think that is relevant to the debate?
Would it be fair to say that the hon. Gentleman was bound over to keep the peace for an incident involving inciting people, in the eyes of the law, to break the law when he was secretary of Derbyshire hunt saboteurs back in the 1970s, as reported in the Derby Telegraph?
For the record, I was bound over to keep the peace after taking part in a Radio Derby broadcast to outline a protest against grouse shooting. That is very different from what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to imply.
The Bill that became the Hunting Act was long overdue. Public opinion overwhelmingly supported the ban and still does. Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat voters support the ban; young and old citizens support the ban; male and female citizens support the ban; urban, suburban and rural dwellers all support the ban.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. People cannot understand why some Government Members want to bring back this barbaric activity. The overwhelming majority of the British people want blood sports to remain consigned to the dustbin of history. As my hon. Friend points out, the vast majority of the British public want the Hunting Act to be retained.
The Act should have consigned hunting to the dustbin of history, yet such is the arrogance of some members of the hunting fraternity that they think they are above the law. However, they need to understand that nobody in this country is above the law—not even them. Organisations including the League Against Cruel Sports, Hunt Watch, Protect Our Wild Animals, the Hunt Saboteurs Association and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, along with many other conscientious individuals, have continued to monitor hunt activity. They all tell a consistent story: hunt violence and hunt havoc continue to blight the lives of ordinary people living in and visiting our beautiful countryside.
I have been genuinely shocked by the evidence that has been passed to me about the behaviour of these common criminals. Antisocial behaviour, intimidation, harassment and even violence directed towards those monitoring their activities are all too commonplace. I could not believe that the violence and intimidation, which I witnessed in the 1970s, is even worse today. The disregard for the wider rural community is another feature of their selfish, arrogant behaviour, which includes road blocking; invading and damaging private property; rampaging hunting dogs killing livestock and beloved pets; causing road traffic accidents; and recklessly trespassing on railway lines.
I am not suggesting that everyone who participates in hunting is an arrogant, violent thug. Indeed, I am sure that most hunt followers obey the law. However, worryingly, a significant minority are arrogant, violent thugs, which is why urgent action is needed to tackle this flagrant disregard for the law. Of course I understand that the police numbers have been reduced, but where the law is being routinely abused, the public must have confidence that the authorities will take action. That is why the Government must act to give the police the tools they need to do the job.
Since I secured this debate, I have been inundated with examples of the lawless behaviour of sections of the hunting fraternity. The incidents are too numerous to list them all tonight, but I wish to give just a few examples to illustrate the kind of people and the sort of incidents I am talking about. In December, a hunt monitor reported to Okehampton police an assault that was captured on film. She was told to attend the police station with evidence of the assault, but, after reviewing the DVD, police officers told her that no offences had been committed. They said that there were just some driving issues that the offenders would be advised about, that any assault was part of a hunting issue and that she should not have been on the public footpath in the first place.
Last summer, a south Pembrokeshire hunt supporter was jailed for three and a half years for firearms offences while at a hunt, after a hunt monitor was shot in the head by what transpired to be a modified single-shot handgun. The man also had a sawn-off shotgun and ammunition inside his van, and a further 16 guns were found in his home. In Devon, two separate home owners sold their houses and moved away from the area after being victimised by the local hunt. The hunt master of the Crawley and Horsham hunt, Kim Richardson, was recently filmed telling hunt monitors,
“You’re all fair game now”.
I have a lot to say and I want to make some more progress. If I have time, I will let the hon. Gentleman in towards the end.
One of the monitors was left with welts on his back and a serious eye injury after the attackers tried to throw him down a ravine. An ambulance was called to treat him, but could not reach him after it was deliberately held up by vehicles belonging to hunt supporters, who hurled abuse at the paramedics.
Earlier this afternoon, I watched a short DVD produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which illustrates the intimidation, theft and assault to which its monitors have been subjected. I have to say that I found the footage shocking.
I also have evidence—a letter from Thames Valley police—of one particular hunt incident dating back to January 2011. It involved a Thames Valley police detective inspector who told a complainant that the case was
“fundamentally flawed (principally due to the delay in time since the offences)”.
Is an offence not an offence whenever it takes place? Is the passage of time a valid reason not to pursue?
It is not just hunt monitors who are the victims of these militant blood sports fanatics. I also have recent examples of other types of antisocial behaviour where these rural ruffians have run amok. In Kent, a farm manager’s wife was pushed off a public footpath by horse riders who were galloping across a narrow area. She was pushed into a hedge after grabbing her pet dog to save him from being attacked. The Goathland and Staintondale hunts killed a pet cat. In Devon, a Staffordshire terrier was attacked by hunt hounds. In Yorkshire, recovering horses at a sanctuary were distressed by rioting hounds. The owner of the sanctuary subsequently received threats—incredibly—from a member of the hunt. A Surrey cattle farmer had his herd disturbed on a number of occasions, causing severe distress to many of the cattle. In Somerset, a sheep farmer complained of sheep being distressed by hunting hounds. In Gloucester, horses were distressed by trespassing hounds that killed a fox on private property. In north Cornwall, animals from a small holding were disturbed by rioting hounds.
Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg. In what other part of society would that be acceptable? The simple answer is that it would not be. The irony is, of course, that none of this is necessary. If those recalcitrant hunt supporters and their unacceptable practices were not tolerated by the hunting fraternity’s hierarchy, those incidents would stop. By complying with the terms of the Hunting Act, all the transgressions I have outlined could be avoided.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government rhetoric about the Hunting Act being flawed and not enforceable and the signals that they would like the hunting ban to be repealed sends the message to the police not to take such offences seriously when they ought to be doing exactly that?
I respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman has given way. We could both stand here all evening making such comments. I have spent 20 years compiling a list of incidents of violence against legitimate country people and hunt supporters, particularly by members of the hunt saboteurs in balaclavas and all that. Will he accept two things? First, could he not at least seize this opportunity to apologise to all those people—women and children included—who have been on the receiving end of violence from the hunt saboteurs? Secondly, could he not recognise that in every instance that he has mentioned there is existing law to deal with the matters that he has brought to the attention of the House?
If anybody is owed an apology, it is the victims of the hunt violence that I have referred to. I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman has not taken the opportunity, as a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, to offer that apology tonight.
If the hunting fraternity complied with the terms of the Hunting Act, the hunt monitors, whom they seem so frightened of, would be welcomed because the hunts would not be doing anything unlawful. However, the Masters of Foxhounds Association and the Countryside Alliance have singularly failed to deal with the lawless behaviour in their midst.
Will the Minister reassure me that he will issue an instruction to chief constables stating that the Hunting Act must be upheld? Will he also ensure that chief constables take steps to prevent hunt supporters from intimidating anyone who is lawfully monitoring hunting activities? Will he state for the record that, as far as this Government are concerned, no one is above the law? Does he agree that the mixed messages from senior Ministers could be misinterpreted by some people as tacit approval for breaking the law? Will he urge his senior colleagues, including the Prime Minister, to stop criticising the Hunting Act?
I congratulate Chris Williamson on securing this evening’s debate. It is not often in an Adjournment debate that the full emotions behind it are apparent, but they already have been this evening. The House will be aware of the strong emotions and feelings held on both sides of the debate.
In the last few minutes of his speech the hon. Gentleman set me some challenges, so let me address them directly. Violence at hunts is unacceptable, whether that is violence towards those who are hunting or towards those who are protesting against hunts. As with any violent crime, I would expect the police to take appropriate action should violence occur at a hunt.
The hon. Gentleman also said that he wanted me to direct chief constables to do certain things. I should point out to him as gently as I can that it is not for Ministers to tell chief constables how to do their job. One of the things that we most cherish about British policing is that the police are operationally independent, and when politicians try to direct police in detail as to how they should do their job, they enter very murky—
I am not aware of a single police officer in this country who does not know that the Hunting Act is the law of the land. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to interfere in the operational decisions of the police. That I refuse to do, and any sensible Policing Minister—indeed, any Minister—would refuse to do that because that is not the way we do policing—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I do not want to keep interrupting his flow, but surely he is not satisfied at the fact that hunts are regularly and flagrantly breaking the terms of the Hunting Act. That cannot be right, can it? It is the law of the land and surely the Government have an obligation to make sure that the law of the land is upheld.
Let me get to the facts. As my hon. Friend Simon Hart said, on both sides of the hunting debate it is possible for people to compile a list of grievances. That is what has happened.
Let me turn to the question of policing at hunts very directly. There are over 325 registered hunts in England and Wales. Together they have carried out over 70,000 days’ hunting since the Hunting Act came into force in 2005. From 2005 to 2011, the latest year for which official figures are available, a total of 332 individuals were prosecuted under the Hunting Act. Of these, 239 were found guilty.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has issued guidance to forces on the enforcement of the Hunting Act. This guidance reinforces the general position that the deployment of police officers, including for enforcement of the Hunting Act, is an operational matter for the police force concerned. The police, of course, have an important duty to enforce the law, but this general duty to enforce the law is subject to the normal discretion of chief constables, who are required to balance resources and priorities. The Hunting Act is no exception to this principle. It is up to the police to decide what resources they use to enforce and prioritise the Act.
The hon. Gentleman indicated that he thought the police were perhaps neglecting this because of the absence of sufficient resources. The Government have no choice but to deal with the deficit and that means that all public services must constrain their spending. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has made it clear that there is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, between numbers and the visibility of the police in the community, or between numbers and the quality of service provided.
I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House and on both sides of this passionate debate would welcome the fact that in the first two years of this Government, crime fell by 10%. On both measures of crime it is clearly falling and it is perfectly clear that the police, even with the constraints on resources, are able to do their job better than ever before. There is no argument to be made at all that resources are restricting the police from doing their basic job of cutting crime. That applies across the board.
Let me turn to the right of protest, which the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. I agree with him that peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society.
The right to protest is not what I was talking about in relation to hunt monitors, who are engaged in a perfectly legal and lawful activity in monitoring the activities of the hunting fraternity, partly to make sure that they do not transgress the law. Indeed, evidence garnered by hunt monitors has led to numerous successful prosecutions. It is not about protest: it is about monitors being allowed to go about their lawful business.
Indeed. I have already, I hope, enlightened the House with the number of prosecutions. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that hunts are not being properly policed, I simply point out that there have been 332 prosecutions and in 239 of those people were found guilty. Whether he regards monitors as protestors or as something else, it is clear that the police are doing their job, as is the rest of the criminal justice system, and people are being prosecuted successfully.
The rights of monitors, protestors, or whatever we wish to call them need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or of serious disruption to the community. The police have a responsibility to assess and manage this balance to ensure public protection and safety, and to engage with protestors, monitors and event organisers to enable peaceful activities to take place. It is clear that on either side of this debate none of these rights extends to violent or threatening behaviour. It is not acceptable for peaceful and law-abiding people to be attacked by others for expressing their views, and the police will and do act if that happens.
The police have a range of powers available to deal with violent crime, whether at a hunt or elsewhere. Where a violent crime has been committed or alleged, or a complaint has been made to the police, it is the responsibility of the police to investigate and determine whether there are sufficient grounds to launch a criminal investigation. The hon. Gentleman gave a number of examples, in some of which the police had clearly looked at evidence and decided that a prosecution would not be successful. That is normal police activity; it is what the police do every day. They detect more crimes than end up in court because they may well, on looking at the evidence in any type of crime, decide that perhaps a crime has not been committed or that there is not enough evidence to—
The Minister sensibly mentioned the issue of intimidation. Would he like to express a view about whether it is necessary for people involved in hunt monitoring or hunt protesting to wear paramilitary gear and balaclavas? Is not that in itself intimidatory? Could the police exercise the powers they already have to make sure that people who want to protest do so in a legitimate and non-confrontational way?
Violent or intimidatory behaviour will draw the attention of the police, from wherever it comes. As I have said several times, this is a passionate debate with very strongly held views on both sides. I am anxious that those views can continue to be expressed but that people stay within the law, and that intimidation and violence is kept out of this debate, as it should be kept out of all debates in a democracy.
For the sake of clarity and setting the record straight, I have seen evidence—I have it here on this DVD and I have seen other footage—of hunt supporters wearing the paramilitary uniforms and balaclavas that Simon Hart mentioned, being extremely intimidatory and, indeed, physically assaulting hunt monitors. I hope that the Minister and the hon. Gentleman would admonish those individuals as well.
I say to the hon. Gentleman what I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire: I will condemn violence and intimidation wherever it comes from. We are all aware of how strongly felt the views are on this matter, but they should not lead to violence or intimidation.
If the police have evidence of violence, intimidation or any other criminal activity, they will consult the Crown Prosecution Service, which will decide whether an offence reaches the threshold required for prosecution under the relevant legislation. The code for Crown prosecutors prohibits a prosecution from continuing if there is not a realistic prospect of conviction.
Once criminal proceedings are brought in an individual case, it is for the courts alone to determine whether the police have acted correctly in enforcing the law and whether there is sufficient evidence to convict the defendant of the charges brought. Where a defendant is convicted, it is for the court to decide, within limits laid down in legislation, what sentence should be imposed, taking into account any aggravating or mitigating features of the case. That is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system and no Government Minister has the power to influence the courts in the exercise of their judicial discretion—and a very good thing, too.
On hunting more generally, this has been a highly contentious issue for many years, both in this House and among the general public. It has been brought home to me this evening, as it has on other occasions, that that remains the case. I know that the hon. Gentleman in particular is passionate about the issue, as is my hon. Friend. It is right and proper that Government and Parliament should reflect on this matter from time to time.
I should make it clear that, while I appreciate that this is a sensitive issue that needs to be discussed from time to time, the Government are not proposing any immediate reform at this stage. We recognise the strong views held on both sides of the debate and—this point is important to the House—that it is an issue of personal conscience. Members of all parties in the House hold different views on the subject of hunting and it has traditionally, and rightly, been subject to a free vote in Parliament. I was a Member at the time of the Hunting Act and voted against it. My personal views are on the record. I should say as a declaration of non-interest that I have never been hunting in my life. Nevertheless, I voted against the Bill.
The Conservative election manifesto promised that Parliament would be given the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote. There are many greater priorities facing the Government at the moment, but we plan to honour that commitment by tabling a motion on hunting at an appropriate time.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. Does he agree that that commitment and the rhetoric of senior Ministers are, as I said in my speech, tantamount to tacit approval for those who are transgressing the Hunting Act to continue to do so? They may be misinterpreting them—I am sure that Ministers would not encourage people to break the law—but does the Minister not understand how the hunting fraternity might take that as tacit approval to break the Hunting Act?
No, absolutely not. Every party at every election makes promises to change the law. Nobody takes that as tacit approval to break the law. If they did, no party would, responsibly, ever promise to change the law at any election and, therefore, there would be no point in having elections or election manifestos. As I hope the House will have observed, I am trying to steer a course, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I absolutely reject his interpretation of my party’s policy at the election.
As I have said, the time is not appropriate and we are not prioritising reform of the Hunting Act at the moment, but the right to protest peacefully and within the law is one that this Government hold dearly. Violence against those who do or do not support hunting is unacceptable. I know that the police will take appropriate action to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of violent crime, using the range of powers at their disposal to deal with any violence or unlawful activity. That is what the police should be doing, that is what the police are doing and that is what they will continue to do.
Question put and agreed to.