Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill: Second Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 6 December 2021.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Hunting of Wild Animals Bill [NIA 43/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

This private Member's Bill represents an attempt to address what is undoubtedly an emotive issue for many. I am sure that, like me, Members across the Chamber have been dealing with a huge amount of mail and engaging with constituents on both sides of the debate.

Since the Bill was first drafted, I very much sympathised with its intent. I am not a hunting man, and that activity, in any shape or form, has never appealed to me, especially as an entertainment. That said, I know many to whom it does appeal, and I also know the benefits that flow from the activity both for those involved and, more widely, for our rural communities. It is no secret that, like it or not, the hunting of mammals using dogs has been employed by farmers for centuries as a method of pest control. The Ulster Farmers' Union and other organisations have drawn attention to the fact that the fox population requires constant management because of the danger that foxes present to domestic poultry flocks and lambs especially. The Member for South Antrim mentioned alternative methods of fox control, such as fox-proof fencing, ultrasonic pest devices and artificial scents, which deter foxes. Those are likely to be considered impractical by farmers in Northern Ireland. Various representations from the sector have already been made to me on that point. In any event, it can be assumed that landowners would seek government support for the funding of alternative methods of fox management, should the Bill be enacted.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that hunting with hounds is not seen as a major activity in Northern Ireland. Relatively small numbers of hunt groups operate in NI, and those engaged in the activity usually have long-held family connections to it. Hunts are currently regulated not only by the few registered bodies that conduct them but by external factors: for example, hunts gain access to farmland only with the consent of the farmer or landowner. That means that landowners are able to decide their position on the hunt and its place in the countryside and regulate usage accordingly. Many will be aware that the Ulster Farmers' Union has a long-standing memorandum of understanding with the Countryside Alliance and the Northern Ireland Masters of Hounds Association, meaning that problems can be raised by landowners and rectified quickly through legitimate bodies.

Opponents of the Bill argue that it raises more questions than it provides answers. It will be for the Member, working in conjunction with the Committee, to seek to address some of the practicalities that will be faced by the rural community. Attempts have been made in the Bill to close several of the loopholes that have been in evidence in England and Wales since similar legislation was enacted some 15 years ago, and that is to be welcomed. Even with the inclusion of a ban on trail hunting, however, it is difficult to see how future breaches could be identified and addressed.

Similarly, issues with the scope of the proposed legislation have been highlighted. I note that the Member previously pointed to the threshold of organised use for human entertainment as being an effective tool in limiting the scope of the Bill and ensuring that it does not become so encompassing as to include the "one man and his dog off the lead" analogy. I remain to be convinced of the viability of the legal practicalities of that point, however. Many in our rural communities have serious concerns about the future impact of the Bill on other countryside activities, including shooting and pest control, for instance.

Issues have been raised about the efficiency of the consultation process, and I have to acknowledge my concerns about the process and the results received. I appreciate that the consultation was conducted in accordance with the usual Assembly procedures, but the lack of data from respondents has severely weakened it. The Assembly needs to consider that issue more widely. Moving forward, we need to close down the potential for consultations to be manipulated by lobby groups from around the world, due to the lack of data supplied by respondents, such as, for example, their address.

The motives behind the Bill are understood. Little detail has been supplied, however, on the benefits or, more importantly, the likely effects of the legislation on those who stand to be most affected: for example, gamekeepers, who may lose their job, or those responsible for breeding and training dogs.

It should also be noted that it is not just DAERA that may have a role in the legislation. Input from the Department of Justice, the PSNI and the Department for Communities is likely to be required if workable legislation is to be achieved. Pressures will undoubtedly be placed on police resources to enforce future legislation in the area, when considered against other priorities such as rural crime. I therefore urge Members to bear enforcement issues in mind during their deliberations.

In conclusion, I hope to engage constructively with the Bill when it reaches Committee Stage, and I will be happy to do so. I will, however, not be supporting the Bill today. That having been said, I acknowledge the Member's genuine intent, and, on a personal level, I wish him well in his endeavours.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I support the Bill and the provisions contained therein. It is, to me, astonishing that, in 2021, the hunting of foxes and other wild mammals with hounds should continue to be practised in this country. I was not always of the view that I am now on the issue. I very much took the view that I am a town person and that it was not for me to tell people in the countryside how to live and how to operate. I will regale the House with a story of how my mind was changed following an incident that took place in, I think, Newry. Children were playing in the garden with a new puppy that their mother had bought for them, and the hunt tore into the garden and ripped their puppy to bits in front of them. One child asked one of the people on horseback, "Mister, is our puppy dead?". He picked up a bit of the puppy, flung it over a hedge and said to those children, "Looks like it, doesn't it?". If that is the by-product — the indirect consequence — of such a practice, it has no place in our society.

That was an indirect consequence, but, leaving aside the direct cruelty of hunting mammals with hounds, I think that it is also unnecessary. I do not have a sentimental view about foxes. I accept the arguments that foxes are vermin. I am therefore not taking a sentimental view on the issue, but there are other ways in which to deal with a fox problem, if you have one. You do not need to make a sport out of it. You do not need dozens of people on horseback tearing across the countryside with a pack of dogs, in many cases damaging that countryside and damaging fences and things like that, to deal with the problem. That is sport, not pest control. I do not even think that it is sport, so let us call it what it is.

There has been a lot of obfuscation in the debate thus far. First, Mr Blair has been attacked on the basis that the consultation was not thorough enough, that it did not ask the right questions and that lobby groups were able to influence it. I can share with Members the fact that, as some will recall, during the general election of 2017, a suggestion was raised that the Conservative Party, if it formed a majority, would reverse the Hunting Act. An opinion poll was carried out on that, in which 85% of people surveyed were against the repeal of the Hunting Act. The idea that there is therefore some silent majority out there in favour of the maintenance of hunting with hounds is nonsense and is not borne out by any measure at all of public opinion. The majority of citizens in this country want hunting abolished.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he has a particular opinion on the Bill. He will realise that one of its most controversial aspects is clause 2, which provides for a ban on trail hunting. Does the Member know the difference between trail hunting and drag hunting, one of which is to be made illegal in the Bill and the other of which is to be kept legal? If he does, can he explain to the House how the police could differentiate between the two?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

If the Member wishes to include it in the Bill, I am happy to vote for that too.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Do you know what it is?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

If the Member wishes to have it included in the Bill, I am happy to vote for it too. The recent decision that was taken by the National Trust on trail and drag hunting —

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

What is the difference?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

— demonstrated, as did the recent High Court judgement on the matter, that trail hunting is used as a cover for the hunting of wild mammals.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

What is the difference between trail and drag hunting?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Will the Member cease chuntering from a sedentary position? You will have your turn.

The fact is that the National Trust took the decision that it took because it recognised that trail hunting and drag hunting were being used as a cover for the hunting of wild mammals with dogs.

I do not, for one second, accept the premise that this is a town versus country argument. It is not. Many people who live in rural communities are as opposed as I am to the hunting of wild mammals with hounds. There is an attempt by powerful lobbying groups, such as the Countryside Alliance and other groups like it, to portray this as a case of ignorant townies — city slickers — imposing their will on country people. That is simply not the case. The majority of people, whether they live in towns or in the country, are with me in opposing the continuance of this cruel and unnecessary practice. I welcome the Bill. I welcome the clauses, particularly that in relation to terrier work. I see no purpose or reason for that sort of activity to go on.

Someone mentioned during the debate the possibility of troubles with enforcement. Their logic appears to be that we should not pass a law for fear that we will have to enforce it. That is why the legislative Assembly exists: to pass laws. It exists so that where we see practices that we wish to end, they can be ended, and where we want to initiate new initiatives, they can be initiated. This practice should be ended. I support the Bill.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:45, 6 December 2021

I remind Members that the maximum time for a contribution is 15 minutes. There is no limit on the length of the overall debate, but the limit on any individual contribution is 15 minutes.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill, as proposed by my Alliance Party colleague John Blair MLA. The Bill gives every MLA an opportunity to stand up for animal welfare and to ban hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland.

The pursuit and killing of wild mammals by hunting dogs for the purposes of enjoyment is cruel and unnecessary. Quick kills are rare. Many animals suffer a prolonged chase and a painful death. No animal should be chased to the point of exhaustion or rupturing of organs, to then be ripped to shreds by the pack of hounds that was pursuing it. That is blood sport: a practice that should be consigned to history, where it belongs.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs, despite widespread public support for such a ban. I commend my Alliance Party colleague John Blair MLA for introducing the Bill. The Bill will reform legislation on hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland, if MLAs give it the opportunity to do so, and it will bring our legislation into line with that of other jurisdictions where the practice has been illegal for nearly 20 years.

I note the 18,000-strong response to the public consultation, 78% of which is in support of the proposals. That must be unprecedented; it is a remarkable consultation response by any assessment. I note that there has also been widespread public support and some political backing for the introduction of a ban on fox hunting in Ireland. Indeed, it is my understanding that Sinn Féin's party president, Mary Lou McDonald, quite clearly set out an intention for Sinn Féin to vote in favour of a ban on fox hunting at the earliest opportunity. That opportunity is presented today by this Bill.

I commend campaigners, including Janice Watt from the League Against Cruel Sports, for their tireless work on the issue of animal welfare. Although Janice Watt recently suffered a bereavement, as well as facing health challenges, she has been no less strident in her support. I know that she is watching today. I commend her for all the work that she has done over the years in relation to animal welfare and specifically in support of this Bill.

A ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland is long overdue. It is cruel and unnecessary and causes the hunted animal immeasurable suffering, whether or not it is eventually killed. As public representatives, we are responsible for legislating for the people of Northern Ireland, and it is indisputable that the majority of the public are opposed to hunting with dogs and deem the practice completely unacceptable. I have consistently been contacted on the issue by my constituents in East Belfast, which has seen some of the most horrific incidents of animal cruelty in Northern Ireland. There is strong support for the proposal from the people of East Belfast, and I am glad to be able to speak about it today.

Many political parties seek to position themselves as being in support of animal welfare. There is a clear opportunity to demonstrate that support today. The task at Second Stage, as has been mentioned by other MLAs, is to set out your position on the principles of the Bill: a ban on cruel and unnecessary hunting. No MLA or party can —

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

— vote against — I will make progress; sorry — the principles of this Bill at Second Stage and legitimately claim to support the principle of a hunting ban. Any MLA or party voting against the principle of this Bill can expect their support for animal welfare to be legitimately challenged hereafter. I encourage all MLAs and parties to carefully consider the import of allowing the Bill to at least pass to Committee Stage today. That is, after all, the task before MLAs.

As the Bill's sponsor stated, we have a historic opportunity to make a significant difference to animal welfare in Northern Ireland and to lead the way in ensuring full, robust protection for our animals that have been persecuted for sport and human enjoyment. I ask all MLAs to support the progress of the legislation to Committee Stage and, ultimately, to end brutality against animals and consign hunting with dogs to history, where it belongs.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I begin by placing on record my membership of the all-party group on country sports. Be under no illusion, however, I speak on this issue today as a representative MLA and a keen conservationist and country sports enthusiast.

During my lifetime, I have had the opportunity to meet huntsmen and huntswomen and conservationists from Antrim to Kerry, Down to Donegal and everywhere in between. Hunting and countryside management have been an intrinsic part of the rural way of life across these islands for many years. I hope that, in the time afforded me today, I can correct some of the vile attempted character assassinations on many in the hunting community. I thank the Countryside Alliance, BASC and many others for their engagement with me on the Bill.

The reasons for proposing legislation along the lines of the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill appear to be as vague as they are misguided. Has the Member not witnessed the turmoil that has taken place in England, Wales and Scotland as a result of the two laws that seek to ban hunting with dogs — something that is still not resolved all these years later? Has he not listened to judges, legal experts, veterinarians, senior police officers, animal welfare experts, senior civil servants, countless country people and the Prime Minister of the day, who shares his name, all of whom have criticised those laws? Does he casually dismiss the view of the senior parliamentary counsel who was asked to draft the Bill that became the Hunting Act 2004? He said:

"All government legislation ought to be about pursuing a public policy that the party in government is pursuing because it forms part of their policies for the betterment of the state, but this wasn't that. A moral judgement was being imposed on a minority — and I thought we didn't do that, except in extremis."

Does the vast cost to the taxpayer in police and court time not make the Member think again about following that path, or does he believe that an opinion poll that supports his Bill, in which, literally, anyone, anywhere in the world, could take part, and which received a paltry 18,000 responses, is a sound basis for enacting legislation? I saw responses from as far away as Arizona in the United States of America and from other European cities. Do they understand the unique circumstances and nature of the Northern Ireland countryside? I ask Members to think about that.

To argue that a ban on the use of hunting dogs is somehow justified simply because the rest of the United Kingdom has enacted similar disastrous laws is as pointless as it is ill-founded. We should be learning from the mistakes that other parts of the United Kingdom have made, not blindly following for some dubious virtue-signalling reason. However, the legislators here in Northern Ireland resolved the issue many years ago, when legislation that protected animal welfare and the right to hunt coexisted. The law permitted the prosecution of anyone, including hunt supporters, if unnecessary suffering to an animal had been caused. It is highly significant that, during those years, not one prosecution was brought forward. It has been argued by the Alliance Party and others that that was because the legislation was flawed, but how? If the evidence of unnecessary suffering, such as what we have heard today from some in the House, had existed, there would have been no bar to legal action. Could it be — I dare to suggest it — because the scientific and veterinary evidence against hunting with dogs simply does not exist? I know that some Members might not like to hear this, but the veterinary evidence is in support of hunting. The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management states:

"Hunting is the natural and most humane method of controlling the fox population. It is humane for a number of reasons; perhaps the most important is that it is intrinsically certain and leaves no wounded survivors."

Hunting with scented hounds adheres perfectly to the aims of genuine wildlife management. It leaves a smaller but healthier quarry population and achieves that in a way that is natural for the hunter and the hunted. The Bill ignores all those points. Quite frankly, it is so poorly drafted that, under it, every dog owner in Northern Ireland could become a criminal for simply letting their dog do what dogs do. In other words, the Bill attempts to legislate against a dog's most basic and natural instinct: to scent and hunt.

The Bill also ignores peer-reviewed research that shows that flushing foxes to guns using a full pack of hounds is more effective than using just two dogs, as the Hunting Act in England and Wales demands. That point was emphasised by the law lord Lord Bonomy in 2016, when he commissioned the Scottish Government review of the law there. Why it was ever thought that limiting that process to just two dogs was better than three or four dogs, or, perhaps, a pack, is unclear. There is certainly no scientific or veterinary basis for that number, apart from the very obvious fact that it curbs the use of hounds.

Dogs are used in a variety of country sports. The Member said that he has no desire to stop any activity other than the killing of wild mammals by dogs. I take his sincere point in that regard. However, the Bill, as drafted, bears no relation to that promise. Shooting will be affected through the work of gamekeepers and dogs, which are used in numerous ways in other sports. The Bill seeks to ban trail hunting, which was the point that I tried to raise to my colleague and friend Mr Stalford. Quite how the police will be expected to distinguish between the different types of scent that are used by a legal drag hunt and an illegal trail hunt is anyone's guess. That point has not been explained in the House today.

I speak directly to Members and to country sports enthusiasts across Northern Ireland: today, by means of this Bill, the anti-hunting lobby seeks to ban the huntsman and huntswoman and their hound.

Next, it will be the man or woman with their gun and their dog, followed by the angler and their rod. I realise that that may not be the intention of Mr Blair, but I assure the House that that is the very intention of some of the advocates of the Bill. The only reason that the rat — the common rat; vermin — has been excluded from the Bill is that, frankly, it was not deemed cute and cuddly enough to be included. It did not fit the narrative. As Members, we must do what is right. We must look at the legislation and deem whether it is fit for purpose. If the principle of the Bill is that sport or recreation has no place in the management of wildlife, then, clearly, shooting, falconry and angling will all be on the list for banning in the near future. Make no mistake about that.

I come to an important point. All that I have said up until now would be diminished or, indeed, irrelevant if the welfare of the animals that were previously hunted in England, Wales and Scotland had improved. Yet, with all the significant sums of money that have been spent on campaigning for laws to ban hunting and the subsequent cost to the public purse for police and court time, not a single penny — not one — has been spent by any anti-hunting group to assess the impact of those laws. That, in itself, speaks volumes. Surely, such critical and crucial research would put an end to the hunting controversy once and for all. Do those groups suspect what is really happening to the wild animals that they supposedly care for and that their case is fundamentally flawed? Such evidence that we have indicates that previously hunted species in many areas are viewed very differently by farmers and landowners, with the result that a community-based conservation process has now just become one of pest control, often with healthy animals being killed instead of the weak, injured or diseased and in far greater numbers. That is not productive wildlife management; again, it is virtue signalling.

The hunting bans in the rest of the United Kingdom are not only detrimental to animal welfare but damaging to conservation. I can well understand why members of the public, who, in the main, are unfamiliar with hunting and might not like the idea of that activity — Members may not like it — will sign petitions or respond negatively to public opinion polls. However, such surveys only reflect a perception and do not explain other methods of wildlife management or pest control, which would inevitably increase and which the public would find equally offensive. The job of an MLA is to analyse the issues in detail, study the Bill in detail and legislate on the basis of evidence and fact, not prejudice or perception.

Members, I support legitimate, law-abiding hunting activity.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I equally support — you will not say "Shame" to this point, Mr Stalford — robust police action against those who partake in illegal forms of hunting, such as the example that you noted in your contribution. I can tell you that law-abiding huntsmen and huntswomen across this country equally condemn those in full measure. It does not have to be a debate in which one side wins and the other side loses. That is a situation that certain campaigning groups want us to be in.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I will if I have time at the end of my contribution.

There will always be people on each side of the argument who will never agree, who will never see the opposing point of view and who will never compromise. However, those are two minority groups. The vast majority of people on both sides feel strongly about animal welfare, but they also realise that wild animals need to be controlled and that that must be done in the most humane ways possible. The BiIl would seriously restrict the ability to manage wild animals whilst doing absolutely nothing for animal welfare. I therefore urge colleagues to vote against the Bill. If we need to address the issue in the future — as I have mentioned, there have been times in the past when the Assembly has got this right — I urge Members to do so on the basis of evidence and principle, with the collective aim of addressing animal welfare rather than controlling human behaviour.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for introducing the Bill. Like my colleague Patsy McGlone, I rise in support of the Bill. The SDLP has had a policy of wanting to ban fox hunting since 1995. As many have said, the primary objective of the Bill is to stop fox hunting as a sport.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Earlier in the debate, reference was made to the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. It sounds benign, does it not? However, we were not told that the previous name of said group was Vets for Hunting.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate the Member's clarifying that point. In his very impassioned contribution to the debate, Mr Buckley talked about no winners or losers, but, frankly, there will be winners: the many wild mammals that will not be torn to shreds by dogs. I, for one, and, I am sure, the majority of people who have been quoted during the debate, do not need to see much scientific evidence or research to know that such actions are inhumane and cruel. We know that. It is interesting to note that, coming out of COVID, many people are talking about building a kinder society and being kinder to each other. Hopefully, we will be kinder to nature because of the climate challenge and kinder to our animals by controlling and preventing that type of sport.

Patsy McGlone outlined that we met the sponsor of the Bill only last week and that we raised a couple of areas on which we were seeking further clarification. As a party, we are keen to work with the sponsor of the Bill in looking at some minor amendments, particularly to clause 6 and the interpretation and the outworkings or, if you like, the potential unintended consequences of some of the points in that clause. Some of those amendments will be around questions like these: what if a third dog joins the rampage, if you like? What happens if a farmer does not have a gun and he or she sends dogs off to chase foxes away from the sheep? Will all farmers have to carry a firearm certificate?

Much has been said about the Bill. I want to be very clear that the SDLP is supportive of the intent of the Bill. There are a few areas around which we seek further clarification, but we look forward to working with the Member at Committee Stage in bringing forward or in supporting his amendments to the Bill on those points of clarification.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

It is clear that hunting and, broadly speaking, animal welfare and animal cruelty issues cut across different sectors of society. There are people from a unionist background and people from a nationalist background on both sides of the argument. If I am interpreting correctly the Member who has just spoken, she and the previous representative from the SDLP who spoke are on a different page, in the same way that I am on a different page from the Member from the DUP who has just spoken. It is also the case that there is not a uniformity of position amongst country people or townies, as they might be classified. There are those from an urban background who are supportive of hunting and those from a rural background who are hostile to it, and vice versa. I also suspect that there will be differences of opinion within the broader veterinary community.

Those of you who were Members about 11 years ago will remember that those differences were displayed when we were debating a piece of legislation. We had a Division that cut across different party perspectives on hare coursing, which the House voted by a majority to ban.

I remember having an exchange with Mr Boylan, a representative who was supportive of hare coursing. I was and remain opposed to hare coursing, and, for want of any doubt, I am opposed to hunting and will support the Bill. I also speak as a former chair of the all-party group on animal welfare. Mention has been made of whether this is about the welfare of the animals concerned; again, without stating the obvious, if I were able to avoid being chased across a field by a pack of dogs, my welfare would possibly be somewhat improved. We can draw a conclusion from that.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will not give way, but I will praise one of Mr Buckley's remarks. He is right that, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the controversy that there has been over the issue for a long time, there are people who feel passionately about it. There are probably minorities on both sides of the argument who take an extreme view. Those circumstances tend to lead opponents or proponents, at times, to overreach. Sometimes, supporters of such a Bill will make claims for it that do not necessarily follow through, and sometimes its opponents will overemphasise aspects of and see demons in it that are not necessarily there. When we look at the Bill, therefore, perhaps as a starting point and before we get to the Bill's principles, it is important to indicate things that are not in the Bill.

I concur that, while I am on a different page from many of them, a lot of people involved in country sports are some of the strongest conservationists in this country and play an important role in conservation. I freely acknowledge and support that. Indeed, before he reminds me, I recently —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. I encourage the Member to use the microphone so that Hansard has a clear record of what he says.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I would hate to think that any of my words were lost for posterity, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you for the reminder.

Those from a country sports background make a strong contribution to conservation and biodiversity, so, in supporting the Bill, I do not impugn their honour.

Similarly, even some of us who support the Bill would acknowledge that, as is almost inevitable with any Bill, not every element in it is perfect and precise, as the previous Member to speak indicated. If, as is the way of such things, the Bill progresses to the next stage — judging the mood of the House, I question whether it will receive a majority today, but we shall see — that will be the opportunity to interrogate and make changes to it.

One of the issues raised — I address this comment particularly to the Bill sponsor — was that mentioned by Mr McGlone on the set of circumstances in clause 6. That has been indicated fairly consistently in correspondence from opponents to the Bill, drawing attention to those who, for example, might be out walking their dog when the dog goes off its leash and gets involved in an activity where a mammal is being chased, and asking whether that would criminalise the people concerned. I do not believe that that is the Bill's intention or is implied by its wording. If that is a concern, however, it is important that there is clarification. I ask the Bill sponsor whether, if the Bill reaches Consideration Stage, he would be willing to support amendments to tie it in with an intention to hunt or wilful hunting. I do not know whether the Bill sponsor wants to comment at this stage or will do so in his winding-up speech.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank Mr Weir for giving way. Hopefully, it will shorten my winding-up speech if I address a number of points at one time.

I can give an assurance that I am happy to work with others on clause 6 and the terminology around willing participation and numbers of dogs. The inclusion of the word "willing" might well make a difference.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 4:15, 6 December 2021

I welcome that clarification. If the Bill reaches Consideration Stage, that would be the type of amendment that those of us who support the Bill would like to see. If the Bill sponsor does not table such an amendment, others will.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am trying to get through this, but I will give way briefly.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Which Mr Blair does the Member think we should listen to? Is it the one who has just spoken or the one who told the Agriculture Committee that he had:

"made the offences themselves ones of strict liability so that the prosecution has only to prove the organisation of or participation in the hunting."?

It is clearly a strict liability offence. That is the principle that he has put in the Bill, and that is the principle that the Member now asks him to resile from.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The House will have the opportunity to make changes to the Bill. I question whether a majority in the House will vote for it to pass its Second Reading. There would, however, be a very clear majority for those sorts of changes.

The Member asked which Mr Blair we should listen to. Earlier, a Member quoted Tony Blair as one of the apparent advocates of concerns about the position in England. I think that I am correct in saying that he had concerns about the legal position. I would be a little bit worried that bringing in Tony Blair as an advocate in defence of a particular position makes the case for the other side. Some of us have had that experience.

One of the other arguments is that this is the thin end of the wedge. I am sure that some will want the legislation to be widened much more, but that is not what is in the Bill. If someone were to seek much greater widening of the Bill, the House will have the common sense and the opportunity to look at that. I, for one, do not believe that we should look to restrict other activities, be they wider aspects of fishing, shooting etc — I support the right to take part in country sports — and that is not in the Bill.

Those of us who support the Bill are not in some sentimental haze of ignorance. The proposed Bill reflects that we accept that it is not a question of simply being sentimental about everything in the countryside and that there is a need for pest control, protection of livestock and methodology that can help biodiversity and conservation. One of the contradictions in what is argued by those who oppose the Bill today is this: when it comes to methods of controlling the animal population to ensure that such conservation takes place, hunting with dogs is undoubtedly one of the least efficient.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Where is the evidence?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

In terms of the frequency of hunts, it is quite often the case that a good huntsman does not catch the hare; it is all about the chase. Getting a large number of horses and hounds to chase one fox does not appear to be a particularly efficient means of doing things.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way briefly. The sedentary Member seeks evidence of hunting's inefficiency in wildlife control. The Westminster Government inquiry into hunting with dogs concluded that the overall contribution of traditional fox hunting within the overall control techniques involving dogs is almost insignificant in the management of the fox population as a whole.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

That is clear evidence. It stands to reason that it is not a particularly efficient way of doing it. At Second Stage, we are asked to deal with the principles of the Bill. I respectfully disagree with some others in the House, in that, to my mind, the key principle is that hunting with dogs remains a cruel, inefficient pursuit. As a society, we have to make a decision on what is and is not acceptable when it comes to animal welfare and animal cruelty. We must do that from a point of principle, in the same way that, down the years, various other activities that were at one stage accepted in our society have now been banned. Perhaps the most recent one here was hare coursing 11 years ago, but there has been a range of other activities banned.

It is not the mark of a civilised society to embrace hunting with dogs. There are other, better, less cruel ways of maintaining biodiversity and conservation. The Bill, if it is successful today, will undergo scrutiny. I appreciate the point that was made earlier about the pressures that are on the Committee, but many Committees are having to deal with a large number of Bills. If that is truly an important consideration, quite a number of private Members' Bills will be dropped accordingly. Indeed, as the party opposite said, a number of the private Members' Bills emanate from it. There therefore has to be consistency of approach.

I welcome the proposal brought forward. If the Bill is successful, it will be subject to a level of scrutiny, and that is the point. There is a key challenge for what we, as a society and as an Assembly, consider to be acceptable. I believe, personally and on a point of principle, that hunting of that nature is abhorrent to society. Consequently, I support the Bill's passing its Second Reading.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Unsurprisingly, on behalf of the Green Party, I support the Bill's passing its Second Stage. I thank the Member for introducing it. Sadly, as we have learnt, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a ban on hunting with dogs. The outlawing of those horrific practices is long overdue. Hunting with dogs is cruel and unnecessary. The hunted animal suffers immeasurably.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. One thing that has struck me in the debate is the argument about minority rights: that hunting is a minority pursuit. It may well be, but I am sorry: you do not have the right to be cruel to animals.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. I welcome his contribution. I also welcome his party's support for all minority rights issues going forward in the House.


The Green Party Northern Ireland strongly objects to the obsolete and inhumane practice of hunting wild animals with dogs. We have been at the forefront of objecting to it for many years. In 2010, then MLA Brian Wilson introduced legislation to adopt the same prohibition on hunting foxes with horses that was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales. It was disappointing that that Bill did not pass. I have to say that the Official Report of that debate makes for some interesting reading, especially because many of the same arguments have been made again today, a decade later. Those arguments are still found wanting. They do not reflect public opinion. It is important that Members reflect on that. If anything, public opinion against hunting has only increased. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a poll that was carried out by Survation in 2019 found that the overwhelming majority of the Northern Ireland public want to see the hunting of deer, foxes, hares and rabbits with dogs made illegal. As Mr Blair outlined, 78% of respondents to his consultation said that the hunting of, searching for, coursing of, capturing of or killing of wild mammals with dogs should be banned here. Public opinion is strong on the matter, and it has clearly strengthened in recent years.

I will touch on a few things in the Bill. I thank the Bill sponsor for meeting me prior to Second Stage and for his engagement and work on the Bill with the all-party group on animal welfare. He will be aware of our discussions on the need for enforcement. We have also discussed puppy farms, licensing and the role of local councils. I raise that for the purposes of clause 4, which, as well as clause 6, has caused some debate. Previously, I discussed with the Member whether he had considered licensing prescribed areas in those clauses. I discussed with him whether local councils could handle and be part of that to take the pressure off the PSNI, which seems to have come up as another excuse to vote against the Bill at Second Stage. Under clause 4, can there be appropriate monitoring of hunts when they take place? How do we ensure that public land is effectively monitored and that the law is enforced? It brings us back to the question of whose task is the enforcement of that, and the Member has outlined a role for the PSNI and the criminal justice system. As a member of the Justice Committee, I look forward to commenting on the Bill as we outline amendments.

If the Bill passes its Second Stage, I would encourage the Committee to look at the resourcing and number of animal welfare officers in Northern Ireland. It is a matter that many of us have discussed and raised, not only on constituency matters but in relation to the inadequate resources that are in place to tackle puppy farming. Perhaps the Committee can look at that too — not that I want to give the Committee any more work to do. However, should the Bill pass Second Stage, it is something to consider and discuss with local government and the Justice Minister, as it will need to be resourced.

As many Members will know, there has been a lobby against this Bill, and many constituents have raised concerns about its scope. However, for me, the Bill is tight. It will not criminalise a situation where a dog runs after or follows a mammal or an animal when a person is engaged in other activities such as angling. I do not see that in the Bill at all. It is my understanding that that does not constitute an offence under the Bill, but of course should the Member want to give solid clarity on that matter, those who have raised such concerns will welcome that.

I raised the matter of the exemptions in clause 4 with the Bill sponsor, who explained that there would be a loophole if all the conditions were not required to be met. I have been assured that all the conditions in clause 4 must be met. Again, perhaps that is something that the Bill sponsor or the Committee can look at to make sure that it is obvious to the reader and clearly understood in the explanatory and financial memorandum. Maybe the Bill sponsor will take the suggestion of a friendly amendment that the Department must produce guidance on clause 4, as it is quite important for people to understand the legislation.

It is worth noting that the Bill includes a ban on trail hunting that does not already exist in the rest of the UK, and that is because trail hunting, as we know, has been used as a cover for actual hunting in England. It is welcome that the Bill closes that loophole. I will answer Mr Buckley's question: drag hunting is where artificial scents are laid, and it is permitted under this Bill.

It is worth mentioning in this debate the possibility of a ban on hunting with snares. That is something for future consideration and legislative change. Snaring is a cruel and painful practice, which causes unnecessary suffering to animals. The Welsh Government recently announced their intention to introduce a ban, and I believe it is time for Northern Ireland to follow suit. I raised that with Minister Poots last month, but I am disappointed that he has no immediate plans to reform the legislation to ban the sale, manufacture and use of restraints in Northern Ireland.

Similarly, the debate is an opportunity to raise the need to strengthen and enforce the Wildlife Order and the legislation on animal welfare, which is completely lacking. It is also an opportunity to call for an end to badger baiting. However, I understand the need to focus on the Bill, given its purposes and the timescale available to us in this mandate.

I believe that fox hunting, stag hunting and hare coursing have no place in a civilised society. We need to go further on a lot of these barbaric practices and put a stop to them. I do not accept that this Bill will ruin anyone's way of life, and hypothetical arguments around pest control do not hold sway; they are simply not rooted in fact. Hunting with dogs has no place in our society. Seeing wild animals tortured and killed in such a cruel way should not be considered a sport or deemed to be entertainment. As we heard from Mr Lyttle, the arguments about controlling the fox population do not stand. It is not countryside management, and just because something was once an acceptable thing to do does not make it legitimate today. Therefore, I am pleased to support the Bill at Second Stage.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

First, I apologise to Mr Blair and to the House because I was not in the House for his opening remarks and the early parts of this debate. I had to attend a family funeral earlier today.

The Bill is ill-considered, needless and, in some parts, it is very poorly drafted. It really is a triumph of prejudice against some country pursuits.

I think that, if I may say so, it is overreach on the Bill sponsor's part with regard to imposing his view of the world on country communities in particular.

When looking at any legislative proposal, a good starting point is asking this question: is the current law adequate? In Mr Stalford's last intervention, he made the point that:

"you do not have the right to be cruel".

Indeed, that is exactly why one of the last Acts of the old Parliament in Northern Ireland was the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, followed through with some updates by this House in 2011. For those 50 years, it has been a criminal offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal in any circumstances, including in the course of hunting. Cruelty itself is defined in that legislation as "unnecessary suffering". From listening to some in this debate, you would think that we were entering into the novel territory of suddenly embracing the concept of avoiding cruelty to animals for the first time. However, the Bill is not about targeting cruelty; it is about targeting hunting per se. That is the target in the Bill.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will give way at the end, if I have time, because time is limited.

There does not even have to be a kill to create illegality under the Bill. It is the chase that is to be criminalised by the Bill in a way that is wholly oppressive, because clause 1 creates a strict liability offence, as Mr Blair intends. The starting point and the finishing point in the Bill is that you shall create a strict liability offence. What is a strict liability offence? It is one in which you do not have to bother with showing intention, for which there is no excuse and which, if it happens, is an offence, no matter the circumstances. Let us take some examples. Driving with no insurance is a strict liability offence. It does not matter that you forgot to renew or thought you had renewed your insurance. It does not matter that you told the wife to renew it and she did not do it. It does not matter. No excuse will stop a prosecution for driving with no insurance, for the good reason that it is critically of public interest importance that you do not allow any leeway for circumstances in which other members of the public can be injured by your acts. Therefore, you cannot have any excuse for not having insurance. Strict liability offences are few and far between in the law. Another example is statutory rape. If someone has intercourse with someone aged 14 or under, it does not matter what consent, excuse or belief as to age there was; it is statutory rape. It is a strict liability offence. Mr Blair seeks to create the strict liability offence where, if you are out walking a dog and that dog chases a mammal, it is an offence. I say that because of the marriage between clause 1 and clause 6(3). Clause 6(3) is clear. The proposed section 1 makes it a strict liability offence to participate in the hunting of a wild animal with a dog. Clause 6(3) states:

"In section 1 the reference to participation in the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes a reference to participation in another activity ... in the course of which a dog hunts a wild mammal."

The other activity could be walking the dog. Many's a Sunday afternoon, when I had a golden retriever, I walked by the banks of the Kellswater River. Under this legislation, had my dog run off and killed a rabbit — not even killed it but chased and hunted it — I would be guilty of an offence. How absurd is that?

It is not just loose, careless drafting. Clause 6(3) is there for a purpose. It is there to underscore the strict liability of clause 1. It is there, deliberately and consciously, to make it a strict liability offence if you are engaged in an activity such as walking your dog and your dog merely chases or hunts a mammal. In that instance, you have committed an offence.

What happens to a farmer in the community when he is convicted of an offence such as that and he holds a firearm certificate? The first knock at the door will be from the PSNI on foot of a criminal conviction, asking him to hand over his shotgun, all because Mr Blair thinks that it is right to create a strict liability offence out of a dog doing the natural thing of chasing a rabbit. That is why I say that this is absurd legislation in its reach and in its intent. As Mr Blair told the Agriculture Committee, he wanted to create a strict liability offence. That is what he wants the House to vote for — to create such a strict liability offence. That is why I will not vote for the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Mr Allister, for giving way. You say that the Bill is about not the targeting of cruelty but the targeting of hunting. However, the fundamental issue at stake here is that hunting is a form of cruelty, and that is what the Bill targets. No matter about the hypotheticals that have been outlined about dogs chasing rabbits across fields, the fact of the matter is that what we are talking about is a practice whereby packs of dogs chase animals and, if there is a successful conclusion, the animals end up dead and ripped to pieces. That is a form of cruelty.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

No, Mr Stalford, we are talking about much more. I could begin to understand the Bill if that is what it was talking about. The Bill is talking about any chase, anywhere, by any dog, of any mammal. That is what the Bill is talking about. If the intent was what Mr Stalford says and what Mr Blair might later tell us really was his intent, why was it not drafted that way? Why was it drafted in that wholly inclusive way, that means that it becomes a strict liability offence for a dog to chase a rabbit?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will start here and work round, if I have time.


Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank Mr Allister for giving way. I just want to clarify what may be a technical point about the interpretation of clause 6(1). It is in relation to your comments about clause 6(3). I appreciate that Members have given examples of hypotheticals, but would there not need to be a person and a dog in pursuit for that to be met?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If the Bill stopped at clause 6(1), yes; but clause 6(1) is then superseded by clause 6(3), which is the point that takes you to the position where the man is walking the dog, the dog is off the lead, and the dog runs away and chases. That is all it takes. If it hunts a rabbit, the offence is complete, because the man has been taking part in an activity, as clause 6(3) states:

"in the course of which a dog hunts".

Not "in the course of which a man and dog hunt" but:

"in the course of which a dog hunts".

The actus reus of the offence is the dog hunting the rabbit. You do not need any mens rea or any intent. That is it. End of.

Mr Stalford made a point about the cruelty, but I do not hear talk about some of our diminishing species. Take the curlew, to which foxes present a real threat. I am sure that, when the fox catches the curlew and pulls it to bits, it is pretty cruel, but, in this situation, the only interest is in who catches the fox. How can that be right?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The difference is that we are human beings endowed with conscience, whereas a fox that kills a bird is going about what is natural to it. We can exercise our conscience not to be cruel.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The dog that chases the rabbit is not doing so out of a call of conscience; it is doing it out of natural instinct. Yet, we want to make natural instinct a criminal offence.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I, too, have reservations about hunting foxes with packs of dogs. However, like the Member opposite, I have had dogs all my life, mostly golden retrievers. As the Member himself will know, you cannot keep them out of water and you cannot keep them from chasing wild animals; it is their natural instinct. My last dog was a Newfoundland, which is a heck of a bit bigger but a dog that is more in love with the water.

I have reservations about the Bill and cannot support it in its current form. I agree that it is cruel to chase an animal to exhaustion and rip it apart if you catch it — that is cruel — but what about the damage that the fox does? You mentioned curlew, but there are also lapwing, grouse, corncrake and plovers: all ground-nesting birds that are taken by foxes. Ask anybody in here from a country background like me what a fox can do if it gets into a henhouse. It does not kill for food; it kills every hen in the henhouse. That is cruel, but it is the fox's instinct. We are making legislation to curb animal instinct but not that of the fox. The fox has no natural enemies that I am aware of; it has to be culled. It is a pest. The grey squirrel is a pest and rats and mice are pests, so I cannot understand why the legislation is trying to protect a fox. Yes, I have reservations about hunting with packs of dogs, as does everybody of a right mind, but the issue is the damage that foxes do to the countryside.

If Mr Allister and I had walked our dogs across the countryside and they took off because they were not on the lead, we are country people —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. I remind Members that interventions should be brief and the Member is running out of time.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief.


Neither he nor I would be here today because we would be in jail.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I can only respond by saying that the Member is correct. This, to put it shortly, is pro-pest legislation. Save the pest; criminalise the dog walker.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member support the principles of the Bill? Will he table amendments at Committee Stage? Does he acknowledge that there are other methods of control, such as fencing, non-lethal traps, removal and noise and scent repellents? There are ways to control wildlife other than that which is being put forward today.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I am sorry that the Member was not listening.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close. You have had 15 minutes.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Yes. I am sorry that Mr Lyttle was not listening to me. I made it plain that I do not support the principle of the Bill because it is to criminalise walking my dog. I cannot accept that.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent 4:45, 6 December 2021

I rise to support the Second Stage of Mr Blair's private Member's Bill. I concur with Mr Stalford and other Members who spoke earlier in the debate. Generally and on the point of principle, I fully support what Mr Blair is trying to do through the Bill, because this type of "sport" is barbaric. Having listened to the previous contributions, I see a differential in defining what we mean by "sport" and what we mean by "instinct". It is almost the difference between prevention and encouragement. The Bill is trying to stop humans encouraging their animals into this type of animal abuse.

Members who raise interesting points that are in conflict with the proposed legislation do so on the basis of detail rather than principle. I am not sure at this point whether it is necessary to amend Mr Blair's Bill to address those points, while giving effect to stopping this form of animal cruelty. However, we should look at that where there are genuine reasons why people are uncomfortable with the Bill.

I appreciate Mr McGlone's contribution. For about five minutes a number of years ago, I was the Minister of Justice, and I met Mr McGlone and a delegation of those involved in country sports. They are not sports that I have ever been interested in or that I am particularly familiar with, so I reflect their experience and expertise in the area. When Mr McGlone is raising concerns, we have to be cognisant of some of them. I will not be disingenuous. I support the Bill because the abuse needs to stop. However, if we can reassure or satisfy, even at the stages to come, those who raise valid concerns about the unintended consequences, I would be happy to look at those, as others have indicated that they would.

Specifically, Mr McGlone raised issues about firearms certificates. Again, in my previous role, I had experience of that. Mr McGlone is right that the firearms branch of the PSNI is responsible for granting and revoking licences. In cases of appeal, the process sometimes ends with the Minister of Justice, so I have read my fair share of firearms appeals. Mr McGlone is correct that a criminal offence is not necessarily required to remove a firearms licence; it can be removed for other reasons. That is fine if those reasons are informed, unbiased, proportionate and thoughtful of risk, but human nature is such that error and bias are inevitable in some cases, and perspective has a —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I appreciate the Member giving way. There has been reference to clause 6, and Mr Blair will be able to address this. I suspect that the reason why that clause is included, particularly the provision that Mr Allister referred to, is the deceitfulness that we have seen from hunts in England and Wales, where trail hunting and drag hunting have been used to try to get round the law that exists there.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank Mr Stalford for his intervention. I will draw it back to the point that I was making. Yes, human nature is such that people will do those things, but, at the same time, that does not mean that we should not write good law. I fully support the Bill, but, if we can make it better, is that not where we all want to be?

The point that I was trying to make was in response to what Mr Stalford said earlier about intent. Is it enough to assume intent, given all the potential variables that alter perception, or do we need to strengthen the law so that the unintended consequences that Mr McGlone and others speak of are not reached? To clarify, I support the Bill, but, if it needs to be strengthened, we need to do that. Let us take it to the next stage, and let us get the Bill to a point where we can stop the abuse and address Members' concerns.

Like all Members, I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents on both sides of the debate — to the extent that John has his own folder in my email inbox. Anecdotally, I have probably received more messages from those who support the Bill, but there are many reasons why that could be the case, so I do not intend to focus on the numbers but rather the reasons outlined. Overwhelmingly, people see this as cruel, unnecessary, outdated and barbaric. I agree, and the counterarguments do nothing to persuade me otherwise. I have received correspondence, as, I am sure, others have, describing this activity as "traditional", "social" and "harmless". My goodness, it is not harmless. It can only be described as "harmless" in a world where animal welfare is disregarded. That is the not the world that we live in. I am sure that, in some areas, it is, but it is not where need to be in 2021. It is interesting to hear that, when a similar debate happened over 10 years ago, some of the same arguments were made then. Northern Ireland can exist in its own bubble, but this one really does need to be burst, because abuse, sadly, can be considered social. It is most definitely traditional, but that does not make it right or, indeed, a behaviour that we should continue to accept because it is what we have always done or, to put it crudely, because it is someone's hobby.

Similar to the points raised by Mr McGlone and others, there is the concern, as we heard recently from Mr Allister and others, that:

"a person participating in any activity where they have a dog and that dog pursues, chases or follows a wild animal, then that person engaging in that or other activity is participating in hunting for the purposes of the Bill and, therefore, that could make them a criminal".

I did not interpret that from the draft legislation, but I am not legally trained. Mr Allister is, so maybe he raises a valid point. On the point that Mr Allister made about a strict liability offence, that is the offence as drafted. Can we mitigate it in some way so that it does not put that strict liability offence on to those people and so that it is not the case that, if you are walking your dog, you will potentially be committing an offence? Let us not make this an excuse not to do something that is right.

Another usually compelling argument for me in this type of debate is that we are the only region of the UK not to have this law. We do not always have to fall in line with other regions of the UK or, indeed, Ireland. However, other areas of the UK and Ireland that are broadly like-minded with us and have similar circumstances and environment have now set a standard against animal cruelty. Why, then, do some in the House want to be at odds with that? Why are they opposed to positive legislation and/or policy that wants to remove a form of animal cruelty? That is a really odd key message. I appreciate that, if it is in the detail, let us work on it, rather than throwing out something positive for Northern Ireland that quite a lot of people, probably the majority, want to see ended. Again, I will reference Mr Stalford. This is the Second Stage. Surely the principle is to stop this type of animal cruelty, and I really do not understand how anyone would be opposed to that.

I will turn to what is perhaps a notable justification that was made by other Members, which was that there is not enough time in the mandate to get the Bill through. That is a really poor argument for not supporting the legislation. It will be really interesting to see if those Members apply that same rationale to other Bills in the mandate, particularly Bills from their own party. Let the process fail the Bill, let three years of no government fail it, but do not fail the Bill through mealy-mouthed tactics to ride both sides of the argument because you are worried about an election next year. If the practical concerns really are your driver, at least send a key message that this form of animal cruelty is wrong by supporting this stage of the Bill.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call John Blair, who has up to 15 minutes to conclude and wind up the debate.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank all Members for their participation in and contributions to the debate. It has been a respectful debate, even in its livelier moments. As I outlined at the start — I want to repeat this; it has been said by others, but we need to re-emphasise it — Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs. Legislation in other jurisdictions has been in place for two decades or so. There is a chance here and now to do better. Before I conclude on our opportunities to do better, I will take a few moments to reflect on Members' comments. I apologise in advance if I do not get through them all due to time constraints.

The debate began with the Chair of the AERA Committee, Declan McAleer, talking about the evidence given to that Committee, the further Committee consideration on matters impacting rural areas and the Committee's process to scrutinise the Bill. He then separately informed us that he would not, as a Sinn Féin member, support that further scrutiny and would, with his colleagues, vote against the Bill. I will make more comments on that later, separate to my reference to the AERA Committee.

William Irwin is also a member of the AERA Committee. It felt like a meeting of the AERA Committee during the contributions of the first five or six Members who spoke, perhaps not unusually. William Irwin talked about dog walkers. That was to be a recurrent theme throughout the debate, and I hope that I can give Members some reassurance on that. For the present, I will concentrate on some other issues. Mr Irwin referred to existing legislation on badger baiting. Therein lies a comparison: there is existing legislation on badger baiting. Whether or not badgers are nocturnal animals, there is still a scent. I repeat what I said earlier: I know of no circumstance where a dog walker has been criminalised because their dog followed the scent of a badger.

I will return later to further examinations and conversations with people in further scrutiny.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Where is the strict liability in respect of badger baiting?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

That is a fair point. I did not say that that was there. I said that the legislation existed.

Mr Irwin alleged — I seek to give an assurance; this is not a criticism — that there was a misrepresentation of the rural community. He is not here at the moment, but I think that he would accept my assurance that that was not intended. I represent a rural constituency, as he does. That is not at all the intent of the Bill. In fact, the intent of the Bill is fairly clearly defined in a relatively limited number of clauses.

Patsy McGlone, who spoke as an AERA Committee member and an SDLP member, talked of his commitment to animal welfare and his interest in country sports. Patsy made specific reference to his concerns about groups of people hunting. The clause 6 discussion started properly when Patsy spoke. I give him an assurance at this point that I am happy to have further conversations about that. I will relate later that commitment to having further conversations about any allegation that I am involved in any kind of doublespeak, because I am willing to talk to people, to have further discussions and to participate in the Committee's scrutiny.

Rosemary Barton, who spoke as an AERA Committee member and a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, said that she accepted the Bill and supported its moving forward to Committee Stage, for which I am very grateful. Rosemary referred to the fact that she would like further clarification. We met before today's sitting, and we, as AERA Committee colleagues, will have opportunities for discussions in Committee. I give a commitment here to discuss issues separately with Rosemary or other colleagues if required.

Harry Harvey spoke of the process that the Bill will go through, with further Committee scrutiny. Unfortunately, however, he clarified that he does not support the Bill continuing to that stage. Christopher Stalford, who followed him, spoke in support of the Bill. He made it clear that he was not always of that view, but he gave some specific examples of what had contributed to his change of mind on the issue.

My colleague Chris Lyttle spoke in support of the Bill, for which I am grateful. Chris referenced an official from the League Against Cruel SportsJanice Watt. I also want to put on record my appreciation to Janice for her work on this issue and a whole raft of animal welfare issues, as well as her work in the interests of animals.

Jonathan Buckley commented that he is a member of the APG on country sports. The conclusion was that he is of a different mind than I am on most of the legislation. He said that there may be an attempt to impose moral judgement on minorities. Rachel Woods subsequently stole a line that I might have used in response to that. I am very familiar with that position, and that is not my intention. Jonathan Buckley acknowledged once or twice that he did not think that I had any hidden agenda with the Bill and that I had been fairly upfront and straightforward about my intention. I can assure him that the Bill's intent is to address the hunting of wild mammals with dogs, where dogs are used to kill. There is no intention to go wider and look at any other aspect of country life or country sport. I am happy to repeat that. If I have to continue to repeat that, I will do so. That does not cause me any problem at all.

Dolores Kelly spoke of the SDLP's existing party policy and said that, hopefully, we will be living in a kinder post-COVID era when we look at how we should deal with those issues legislatively. Peter Weir, who also spoke in support of the Bill, talked about the differences across communities and the fact that people were categorised in that regard. There are differences of opinion among rural communities, political parties and lots of other categories of people, which he referenced. He, too, spoke of the need for further examination of clause 6. In an exchange with Mr Weir during his speech, I gave a commitment to at least have discussions about the inclusion of the word "willing" in terms of participation in or organisation of a hunt, if that clarified matters. That is not a commitment to change it. Those discussions will depend on the willingness of others, given the numbers in the House.

Rachel Woods spoke in support of the Bill. She said that she had some concerns about clause 4 and matters of enforcement, which she and I had discussed separately, as she referenced. I can repeat here that I have already undertaken work quite separate from the Bill about how the role of council animal welfare officers interfaces with the PSNI welfare and wildlife section and the DAERA business area of animal welfare, based in Ballykelly. I am trying to get further clarification on how all those groups of people interface, react and provide services across our areas, including council areas, and how we can make that better. Given that Rachel Woods has committed to taking some of those matters forward with the Justice Committee, which I welcome, I should probably clarify that some of the work that I have undertaken may well end up at the AERA Committee.

Finally, Claire Sugden spoke in support of the Bill. She referenced some of the complications that she faced during her time as Justice Minister. She also referred to the need to have further conversations. I have not left Mr Allister out and will come to him in a moment. I am happy to give Claire Sugden the assurance that those conversations will take place, as I said, before the Committee, with parties or with individuals. I hope that I can give Mr Allister the assurance that there is no doublespeak or double standard in my position of "hoping" to do that or "pledging" to do that. I cannot be sure of Mr Allister's capacity for compromise and flexibility, but I can assure him of my willingness to seek to do that if it achieves the overall aim, a portion of the aim or most of the aim, which is to serve the interests of animal welfare in this regard.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Yes, absolutely.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member indicates that he anticipates putting the word "willing" before "participation" in a hunt. I suggest to him that that solves nothing because, in clause 6(3), the participation is not in the hunt but in the activity from which the dog then hunts. So, mere willing participation does nothing to diminish the problem. The problem that the Member has with this is that, deliberately, he sought to make it a strict liability offence. Unless he relinquishes that, he will not make amends on this. If he is relinquishing that, the proper thing to do, since that is the cornerstone of the Bill, is to withdraw the Bill and come back with one that does not have that cornerstone.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Yes, of course.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Does the Member agree that much of this debate has been characterised by an obsessive focus on technical issues? That is part of our job, of course. At the core, those who are pursuing that route simply want hunting to continue, and it cannot.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I will respond to both interventions, and I thank the Members for them. I am, of course, prepared to listen to the points put forward by Mr Allister, but Mr Stalford made a very valid point. Ultimately, there is a clear difference between those who support the continued practice of hunting with dogs where dogs are used for the kill and those who do not. I am sure that Members have guessed that I am one of those who do not.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Yes, of course, briefly.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate the positive way in which he has engaged with us in the debate. Clause 2 deals with trail hunting. As the Bill sponsor, the Member will be able to clarify that the Bill seeks to make illegal trail hunting but not drag hunting. That is my understanding. Can the Member define for the House the differences between the two? Some in the House did not know that when they spoke earlier. On that point, how would the police differentiate between the two? Have you given any thought to that?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

There would be evidence: there are differences in the scents used in the various types of hunts — drag hunting, clean boot hunting and trail hunting. I go back to a point made earlier: trail hunting was created to overcome the ban on the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in other jurisdictions. We have seen, as demonstrated in recent legal actions and outcomes in the court in Westminster, that it was clearly exploited to overcome illegal hunting and that a loophole had been created. There are differences there. All are practised, and the reason why clean boot hunting and drag hunting are not included is that they have been proven to be less lethal, with many fewer reports and much less coverage of any incidents; therein I draw the distinction.

Some Members, during their contributions, may have gone off the scent a bit.


I have waited all day to say that — it feels like all day. They raised the concern that, if the Bill were to pass, dog walkers could be criminalised. That is not the intent. I referred to this earlier, but, given the nature of the issue, I think that it warrants a few additional comments. I have covered the issues around badgers and existing legislation. I have also covered the interpretation of the Bill in further conversations. I am, however, keen to look at it again and to engage with party Members and independent Members. I reached out to all parties before today, and I will do the same after today. I am happy to be approached at any point. More than anything, I want to reassure Members that I am happy for that issue and other issues to undergo further scrutiny at Committee Stage. Additional issues may well be raised following today's debate, and I will be of any assistance that I can be regarding Members' concerns.

I repeat my commitment that the Bill as it stands is as it is intended to be. I have heard the points made previously that it is the thin end of the wedge. I do not think that those points were made with ill intent, but I want to make it clear that I do not wish to add any other form of country sport to the Bill. With that in mind, and given the chance for a change in the interests of animal welfare that will address public concern to be made, I appeal to Members to support the Bill at its Second Stage. That will allow for further scrutiny, including discussion of the concerns that Members have raised.

Finally, I appeal to Sinn Féin in particular to make good on its party commitment: the commitment that its party president Mary Lou McDonald made in February 2020, when she told animal welfare charities in Ireland that Sinn Féin would vote for a ban on fox hunting "at the next opportunity", if it could. That opportunity is here. In the limited time remaining in this mandate, this is the time to seize the opportunity, not to seek reasons for equivocation. In addition —

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Is he suggesting that Sinn Féin is not only not opposed to hunting with hounds but not averse to running with hares?


Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I will not seek to be any more mischievous than I already have been.

In addition to my point and to the Member's intervention, I would like the Members to whom I referred to consider an additional factor. If the Bill succeeds at this time, it will be easier to pick up on the legislation in the new mandate that Mr McAleer referred to earlier. If the Bill fails at this stage, it will be more difficult to pick up on the issue in the new mandate. I ask Sinn Féin Members, and all Members, to consider that when they vote and to find the support for the Bill that I sought earlier.

Question put.

Some Members:


Some Members:


Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.

Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.

Question put a second time.

Some Members:


Some Members:


Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly currently has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirement for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask Members to ensure that they maintain a gap of at least 2 metres between themselves and others while moving around in the Chamber or the Rotunda, and especially in the Lobbies. Please be patient at all times, observe the signage and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks. Clear the Lobbies.

The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 38; Noes 45


Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McNulty, Mr Muir, Mr Nesbitt, Mr O'Toole, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Miss Woods

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Bradshaw, Mr Lyttle


Mr Allister, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Mr M Bradley, Ms Brogan, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mr Clarke, Mr Delargy, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Ms Dolan, Mr Dunne, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Ms Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lyons, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Ms A Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Miss Reilly, Mr Robinson, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Storey

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan, Mr Harvey

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Second Stage of the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill is not agreed. The Bill falls.

Adjourned at 5.31 pm.