I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 7, in page 19, line 29, leave out `commits an offence' and insert
`is liable to a penalty imposed in accordance with paragraph 5'.
No. 8, in page 19, line 32, leave out `commits an offence' and insert
`is liable to a penalty imposed in accordance with paragraph 5'.
No. 9, in page 19, line 35, leave out `commits an offence' and insert
`is liable to a penalty imposed in accordance with paragraph 5'.
No. 10, in page 19, line 39, leave out `commit an offence' and insert
`are liable to a penalty imposed in accordance with paragraph 5'.
No. 11, in page 20, line 4, leave out paragraph 5 and insert—
`5.—(1) A person liable to a penalty by virtue of paragraph 1, 2, 3 or 4 is liable to a penalty of an amount to be determined by the Secretary of State which shall not exceed the prescribed amount.
(2) The prescribed amount shall not exceed the sum which for the time being is equivalent to a fine of level 5 on the standard scale.
(3) A person liable to a penalty must pay the amount determined by the Secretary of State under sub-paragraph (1) to the Secretary of State before the end of the prescribed period.
(4) In this paragraph ``prescribed'' means prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.
(5) Regulations made by the Secretary of State under this paragraph—
(a) shall be made by statutory instrument, and
(b) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.
No. 16, in page 20, line 20, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert `liable to a penalty'.
No. 17, in page 20, line 25, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert `liable to a penalty'.
No. 18, in page 21, line 10, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert `liable to a penalty'.
No. 19, in page 21, line 22, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert `liable to a penalty'.
No. 20, in page 21, line 26, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert
`liable to a penalty'.
No. 21, in page 21, line 44, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert
`liable to a penalty'.
No. 22, in page 22, line 14, leave out `charged with an offence' and insert
`liable to a penalty'.
No. 23, in page 22, line 19, leave out `an offence' and insert `a penalty'.
No. 26, in page 23, line 10, leave out from `The' to `the' in line 11 and insert
`Secretary of State may apply to a magistrates court for an order providing for'.
No. 27, in page 23, line 12, leave out from `of' to end of line 13 and insert
`an act in respect of which a penalty has been imposed under paragraph 5.'.
No. 28, in page 23, line 33, leave out `convicted' and insert
`on whom the penalty has been imposed under paragraph 5'.
No. 29, in page 23, line 37, leave out from `The' to `from' in line 38 and insert
`Secretary of State may apply to a magistrates' court for an order prohibiting a person on whom a penalty has been imposed under paragraph 5 by virtue of paragraph 1, 3 or 4(2)'.
As you will recall, Mrs. Roe, I argued before our break that the introduction of criminal sanctions would, undoubtedly and sadly, be effective against the larger hunts and would be relatively easy to police. My point was that the introduction of such sanctions could be injurious to police resources, use up a lot of police time, and impose unfair criminal sanctions on gamekeepers and small working farmers who are trying to control a growing fox population. That is a real problem. As I speak for the next few minutes, I want the Committee to forget the traditional image of the hunt—the people in scarlet coats, the expensive hunters, all the paraphernalia, uniforms and traditions—and think in terms of the working man on the farm trying to control the fox.
I am grateful to British Wildlife Management for a briefing that it has sent us, which tells us:
The fox is the world's most successful coloniser after man. Britain's red fox is a star performer with a spring population thought to be growing at more than 400,000 despite big efforts to control their numbers.
Fox numbers are widely controlled because along with other predators in our totally man made environment, they have proved to be a serious threat to other important species, such as ground nesting birds, hares— and—
other wild species . . . Out of approximately 500,000 that die each year . . . some 220,000 are deliberately killed or culled in a whole range of necessary measures . . . MP's have been asked to vote for the removal of well trained and well supervised working dogs.
I want the Committee to think how gamekeepers will cope with the legislation. They are concerned with creating a balanced environment and face a serious and growing fox population that they must control, but also face tough penalties that could put them out of a job—a £5,000 fine and having to prove their innocence in court.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who drew our attention this morning to an important letter from the National Gamekeepers Organisation. I hope that all members of the Committee will read it. It is a key source document for our proceedings and I am sure that we will come back to it again and again. It states:
If the Hunting Bill were to proceed as currently drafted it would have a disastrous affect on gamekeepers, making it very hard for them to do their jobs. It would threaten their livelihoods and render `keepers, beaters and gun dog handlers liable to prosecution for everyday occurrences in the shooting field.
I stress ``everyday occurrences''. It is important to consider the matter in relation to the management of Britain's wildlife. We have one of the best managed wildlife environments in western Europe, often in difficult situations. The letter continues:
Because the Bill would ban ``hunting with dogs'', vital gamekeeping practices throughout England and Wales are in jeopardy. Gamekeepers use many types of dogs to control large numbers of serious pests, including foxes, mink, rats and rabbits. This routine and unsung work is vital for a balanced, healthy countryside. The exemptions in the Bill are completely inadequate to allow most of this work to continue...The knock on implications for conservation would be dramatic. In the case of the uplands, for example, grouse management—already subject to severe pressures—would in some places cease to be economically viable if fox and stoat control became more difficult than they already are.
I hope that we will return to the organisation's concerns later. I do not need to go through all the arguments, but it deals with the Bill in some detail. It makes a series of good points. On the penalties, it states:
The imposition of a level 5 fine for the offences under clause 1 is draconian. The whole construction of the Bill is likely to result in unfair prosecutions. Anyone using a dog to flush or retrieve a live mammal could be arrested, have his person, vehicle and premises searched, and be taken to court.
They are ordinary working men trying to make a living in the countryside. The organisation's letter goes on to state:
Only there would this innocent person have the chance to prove that his legitimate activity came under one of the `defences' included in the Bill. If he could not prove it, under Clause 5 he would face a £5,000 fine.
Having established that scenario—that the farmer or gamekeeper could be brought to court—let us examine some of the situations that could arise. There is a series of examples. The letter states:
Dogs are also frequently used by gamekeepers to hunt mink or to flush them from cover, or from underground, so they can be shot. Clause 1 would ban both of these methods of mink control. There is no relevant exemption in the Bill.
Flushing is an exemption, but—this is an important point—the letter goes on to state:
Flushing without subsequent shooting, for whatever reasons (safety considerations, range, proximity of a following dog etc.) could be an offence, because exception 7.5(a) is so vague. This would make it extremely difficult for gamekeepers or others to carry out a selective cull and to pick safe, clean shots when shooting mammals. The Bill could encourage people to shoot recklessly in order not to be guilty of a hunting offence.
Under Clause 1, a gundog happening to flush or hunt a rabbit in the open (exception 7.2(a)) could render its owner guilty of a criminal offence. As no-one knows where or when a rabbit may get up in front of a dog, nor from what sort of `cover' this would be a ludicrous legal situation.
Likewise, during shooting, gundogs are often used in the beating line when hares are driven towards guns as a crop protection exercise...Clause 1 would ban the flushing of hares by dogs in the open...Using dogs to push deer out of woodland enclosures is essential for timber management. Clause 1 would ban it. Deer are not subject to any of the exceptions in Clause 7.
I hope that I have read enough to show some of the difficulties that gamekeepers will experience.
Can my hon. Friend tell the Committee of any organisation or group concerned in the daily management of the countryside and wildlife in the countryside that has written in support of the provisions that we are discussing? Does anyone who is concerned with such daily management, in the way that the people who have just been quoted are, think that the Bill is acceptable or workable?
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) is saying that we imply that the agricultural workers union counts for nothing. We certainly do not. The hon. Gentleman should learn that, in general, its members are not those who look after game. The issue is not who ploughs the fields, but who looks after the game.
The agricultural trade union under discussion is an effective voice. However, it is primarily a voice for the agricultural worker—the man who does an excellent job driving the tractor and working in the large arable farm. The union is not the voice of gamekeepers or those involved in game conservancy. It is important that hon. Members who support the Bill should treat the views of gamekeepers with respect. Their organisation makes a powerful point, among many others. It states:
The defence in clause 8 permitting the hunting of rodents (rats and squirrels) makes no sense. Why is it OK to hunt a rat and not a rabbit? Why is it OK to hunt a rat in the open but not if it dives underground? More practically, how is the dog in hot pursuit to be stopped?
We are talking about the criminal conviction of people who are simply trying to do their job in difficult circumstances. It is incumbent on those who support the Bill to recognise that fox control is a serious problem, that the fox population is growing in many parts of the country and that dogs—
I deliberately did not say hounds, because it often gives the impression of organised packs. I want the Committee to think not of organised hunts but of the working countryside; whether one uses hounds or dogs, everyone then knows what it means. In such a situation, we need our canine friends to cull the fox population humanely and effectively.
If we do not go down the route of introducing criminal sanctions, what can we do? A door is waiting open for the Government. Home Office circular 7/97 states:
The fixed penalty system is well established and enormously successful in diverting large numbers of criminal offences from the courts.
That is an appropriate response to situations in which it could not be seriously argued that those who break minor laws or who hunt with hounds should be treated as criminals and recidivists. We already have such a system. The Government rightly say that the courts should not be choked up with minor matters and that the fixed penalty systems should be used.
A more recent precedent for civil liberty penalties is the carrier liability legislation extended to lorry drivers under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which provides for a new civil penalty of £2,000 per passenger. The most recent introduction of a new sort of penalty offence is in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which would give police officers the discretion to impose on-the-spot financial penalties for a range of anti-social offences associated with disorderly conduct. The explanatory notes to the Bill state that although the conduct in question is already criminal, the need to focus police and court resources elsewhere means that much minor offending of that type escapes sanction or other consequences at present. That Bill would provide a further means for the police to deal with low-level disruptive criminal behaviour. That was the Government's view then, so they cannot argue that alternatives do not exist.
I stress that hunting is an activity conducted in many ways by large numbers of people. It is not only a sport. As I have tried to explain by mentioning the comments of working gamekeepers, it is often a part of traditional working practices and pest control. I accept that Parliament has decided to ban organised hunts, but we should proceed only one step at a time. Before we drag people to court and impose criminal penalties, we should consider the alternatives.
The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) are germane to the argument. I stress that imposing a civil penalty would achieve what Parliament wants. It would stop the large organised hunts, but it would not result in working farmers, gamekeepers and others being hauled into court. We must remember that the most difficult aspect is that the police will not have to prove anything; it will be for the farmers and gamekeepers to prove their innocence. They will have to go to court and spend money to defend themselves. What happens in the countryside is a complex matter.
Once we have banned hunting, many people will be watching gamekeepers at work or following shoots. A recent paper from the League Against Cruel Sports attacks, in strong language, shooting—it encourages its members to oppose shooting. Its main argument for opposing shooting is not that it considers it to be a sport—I do not share that point of view, but I believe that it is morally wrong to shoot for pleasure—but that gamekeepers use their current practices to control and even to liquidate other wild species because they are a threat to the partridges and the pheasants. One of the league's principal arguments is directed against the National Gamekeepers Organisation.
I accept that that is not the Government's view. The Government have made it clear that they are not opposed to shooting and would not legislate against it, but once the Hunting Bill is enacted a national campaign against shooting will start immediately. It will be well run and well organised because shooting is a sport and because gamekeepers are encouraged to interfere in what is considered to be the natural habitat.
Gamekeepers and working farmers will be reported and brought to court, which will cause them much worry, fear, and expense. At the end of the day, they may not want to take the risk—maybe they will not, or maybe they will. A small working farmer might have to take the risk, as he simply could not afford to allow his livestock to face possible depredations by what he considers to be vermin.
The situation in the countryside will be unbelievably confused. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to tidy up this Bill and to try to make it work. I do not want the Bill in the first place, but let us at least make good law. Let us try to achieve the situation that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury wants, so that, when these gamekeepers land up in court through no fault of their own, they will face a fine and not a criminal conviction that will hang over them for five years.
I wish briefly, and inevitably not as elegantly, to support my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury in what he said ahead of what I am sure will be the magnificent winding-up speech of the Parliamentary Secretary.
It was Burke who said:
Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither . . . is safe.
Not only is that separation clearly made in this legislation, but what is even more serious is that there are so many genuine anomalies. I make no criticism of the Minister in this respect or of those who drafted this Bill: it is almost impossible to get right. The anomalies and dangers that exist, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) rightly said, for ordinary working gamekeepers and others as a result of this legislation—in particular, schedule 3—are manifold. It would be wrong and wholly improper of the House of Commons to enact legislation that does not have regard and care for the difficulties that will affect them.
A well balanced, well managed countryside requires effective stewardship. Stewardship costs money. We can argue across the Chamber, as I have on many occasions with the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). We disagree about hunting but, as he is a keen student of history and art, he will understand when looking at paintings and literature on the history of foxhunting that, whether or not one approves of it, vast tracts of the countryside that we love so much were laid out specifically for it. Much of the stewardship, and the basis on which the countryside was and is kept, has been dependent on foxhunting.
Since the invention of a more effective gun in the late 19th century, much of the countryside has also been laid out for the shooting of game. A substantial number of people are employed as gamekeepers in this country and it is to them in particular that I address these words.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has set out the position clearly from the admirable brief sent by Charles Nodder of the National Gamekeepers Organisation, whose motto is ``Keeping the balance''. The organisation takes its duties seriously and encourages its members to take seriously the stewardship and conservation of the countryside. For all gamekeepers the main battle with vermin is probably with that splendid and wonderful animal, Mr. Fox, whose interests we are here to defend—on both sides of the House, although each probably has a different idea of how his interests are best defended. For the gamekeeper, the fox is a real enemy.
The most difficult task for a keeper is probably to find the fox. To do so, he will use dogs—in this case dogs and not hounds. It is a source of deep hurt to me that people will insist on referring to hounds as dogs. They are not. A hound has been built and bred for generations to be precisely what he is: a splendid and tough animal of great stamina and courage. A dog, although agreeable, is an altogether inferior animal.
The cur dogs—terriers and others—are used to find the fox. When the keeper sees the fox, he might shoot it—hopefully, not with a shotgun. If he can, he will probably shoot it at night with a rifle. When keepers deal with foxes, they often have lurchers standing by, in case the fox should get out of an unattended earth or, in his cunning and clever manner, delude those who seek to get him. A good lurcher will hunt a bolting fox by sight and will probably roll him over in 100 yards. Clearly, under the Bill, that would be an illegal act, although I accept the argument of the Minister this morning that that is not the intention.
In 1998, the university of Bristol surveyed 215 keepers from the National Gamekeepers Organisation. The survey principally concerned stoat and weasel, those equally troublesome vermin. I do not know whether you know the difference between a weasel and a stoat, Mrs. Roe. They are difficult to tell apart, but I always remember that a weasel is easily identified, but that a stoat is ``stoatily'' different. Of the gamekeepers who responded, 90 per cent. said that foxes were either common or very common on their beat, 68 per cent. said that fox numbers had increased on their beat in the past 20 years, and none said that they had declined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out that the fox is a brilliant coloniser. Incidentally, I saw a dead fox in an underpass on my way into the City the other day. Foxes have even adapted to living in bomb sites. I am told that Brixton and somewhere called Clapham, which is outside London, are infested with foxes. One could take a pack of hounds to Brixton any time and have a cracking good day.
Of the gamekeepers who responded, 100 per cent. controlled foxes in some way: 48 per cent. had visits from packs of hounds, 46 per cent. used terriers, 98 per cent. used shooting and, although they were not asked, the vast majority would have used dogs to hunt as part of their efforts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was right to draw to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary—I am sure that she will have the most convincing arguments in response—the fact that the Bill will criminalise the jobs of responsible people whose lives have already been made difficult. Everyone welcomes the legislation on rights of way, which increases access to the countryside, but it will make keepers' lives harder as they try to maintain game in an orderly and sensible way. It will be much harder for them to deal with the vermin that prey on game. It is expensive to rear game. People may become bored with not having sufficient game because of vermin. They may also become bored with untidy and dirty countryside, as the countryside will increasingly fall into disrepair, to the great disadvantage of all. I am sure that that is not the Parliamentary Secretary's intention. It is essential that the Bill does not upset the balance that is required for the proper stewardship of the countryside.
If the Hunting Bill proceeds as drafted, it will have a disastrous effect on gamekeepers and make it difficult for them to do their jobs. It will threaten their livelihoods and render keepers, beaters and gundog handlers, all of whom are utterly essential to shooting, liable to prosecution for everyday occurrences in the shooting field.
In its note to the Committee, the National Gamekeepers Organisation points out that terriers are the only legal means of dealing with foxes that have taken refuge underground since poisoning and gassing have—I am glad to say—already been banned. Clause 1 would outlaw the use of terriers completely. There is no relevant exception in the Bill and we look forward to hearing from the Parliamentary Secretary exactly how she proposes the matter should be dealt with.
Finally, I read a letter that I have received today from a lady who lives in Essex and who works for farmers in her area controlling rabbits and using two lurchers. She says:
I own and work lurchers independently. I provide a service to farmers in so much as I help in the control of the rabbit . . . a pest species . . . My dogs do not course for sport. I do not consider pest control a sport yet under the new Bill I will no longer legally be able to work with my highly trained hounds.
In fact she is wrong to call her lurchers hounds, because they are not.
This is not some specious argument got up to try to oppose the Bill. The House, to my great disappointment, gave an enormous, resounding vote in favour of banning foxhunting. I hope very much that the Bill will be held up for as long as it can be in the House of Lords and dealt with properly. I do not want it to become law, but given that we are in Committee, it is our duty to see to it that it at least emerges in a workable form that will not criminalise the everyday, legitimate and essential pursuits of keepers and others who work in the countryside in the ordinary course of their business. This is not an attempt to prolong proceedings—these are serious arguments.
Whereas the general precept of the Bill touches on the fundamental liberties of ordinary people, this piece of law would turn into criminals gamekeepers and others whose job it is to control vermin. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies, will she give some serious thought to how such people can possibly be protected from an over-draconian clause?
I apologise, Mrs. Roe, to you and to the Committee for not being here this morning. I was at a funeral at a village in Suffolk. While you debated the amendment, I looked round the Baptist chapel at the 130 ordinary people from the village and realised that a high proportion of them would be threatened by the provisions. One must put the matter in those simple terms, because those of us who live and work in the countryside recognise that many people there do highly trained jobs. For example, those who plough today do so with remarkably sophisticated machinery; people who work on the land can no longer be thought of in the same terms as 100 years ago.
There is no skill greater than that of those who try to keep the balance of nature, and man is a necessary part of that predatory chain. I do not think that anyone in this Committee would be capable of doing such jobs. The position in which such people find themselves is very important. That is why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough whether there were any representatives of those who do such jobs who feel that they could do so properly if the Bill were enacted.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, I wish that the Bill was not in Committee and that it had not been passed as it has. However, now that it is before us, we owe it not only to our constituents but to all the people of Britain to ensure that it does not, by accident, cover people whom it was not meant to cover. I do not believe that anybody thought that the Bill would apply to people who are clear in their own minds—and have been given advice to that effect—that they are right. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will apply herself to that fundamental issue.
Justice and freedom are indissoluble. Part of justice is clarity on the law and its probity. One does not necessarily have to agree with legislation, but it must be properly enacted and must properly cover the circumstances that it was meant to cover. My concern is that I can find no one involved in keeping the balance in the countryside who feels that the provisions do not impinge on that proper activity.
I am slightly confused by the right hon. Gentleman's view that people such as gamekeepers—an honourable profession—are purely to keep the balance of the countryside. I thought that gamekeepers were—at least partly—to ensure that there were more game birds than there otherwise would be.
Of course they are. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, but I think that he will agree that on a properly run estate and a properly run farm in properly run countryside we do not find the eradication of stoats, weasels and foxes. They are kept under control so that biodiversity--to use a term that nowadays is rightly popular--is protected. That is why I am talking about the balance of nature. It has not been the practice—nor is it now—for gamekeepers to destroy whole species. They seek to protect the birds that they are trying to rear from the depredations of mammals which, left to their own devices, would get out of control and make it impossible for the balance to be maintained. Not only is that true of what gamekeepers do, it is their motto. To think otherwise would be to suggest that not only I but they have misunderstood their role.
I do not wish to disparage the noble profession of gamekeeping, but the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that there are plenty of reported cases of gamekeepers poisoning birds of prey—and being prosecuted for it—to stop them predating on game birds. He knows that for a fact, so let us not portray the gamekeeper as someone who is concerned only with preserving a balance of nature.
There are plenty of recorded cases of fraudulent Members of Parliament, but that does not mean that every Member of Parliament is fraudulent or, indeed, that in general people become Members of Parliament in order to be fraudulent. The hon. Gentleman's case does not stand up. There are very few recorded cases of gamekeepers who have behaved in such a way. It is utterly against the rules of the fraternity and certainly against any current law. As so often, the hon. Gentleman lifts the cloth over the next item on the agenda. That is the real issue.
We spend time besmirching people in the countryside—if one represents one of the Hams, it is easy to be rude about the countryside; there is not a vote in it for the hon. Gentleman—but we are in fact reminding ourselves of the next battle. One down and four to go is no doubt the theory of those like himself. I suspect that his present willingness to support fishing may weaken when fishing becomes the aim after next.
Those of us on the Opposition Benches, and I hope one or two others elsewhere, recognise that there are many very professional people doing a difficult job that they love and enjoy. Should they become criminals? It would be improper for the House in its enthusiasm to ban hunting with dogs, as it is so ignorantly called, and thereby make criminals of a group of people for whom most of us have enormous respect. It would be good for us to be humble enough to take the advice of those who do the job. I have heard many speeches, especially from Labour Members, which suggest that they have never listened to anybody involved in any of the pursuits of which we speak. As I understand that gamekeeping is not something that Labour Members wish to ban, perhaps we should listen to what the gamekeepers themselves have to say.
In my brief remarks and my desire to spare the Committee, I did not go into the economic aspects, especially of the uplands, which my right hon. Friend knows well, where a ban on the use of terriers working foxes would be devastating to the grouse moors and all ground-nesting game. My right hon. Friend will want to include them when discussing the keepers' lot, which will be made so much harder.
That is true. I had hoped that Labour Members would care about gamekeepers as much as they claim to care about similar types of people who live in towns. If we were discussing an issue involving a town, every Labour Member would be saying that we should talk to the people on the shop floor, or to those who drive the vans, who would tell us x, y and z—and we ought to listen to such comments. [Interruption.] I am saddened that some Labour Members find it funny that one should congratulate the people who do jobs such as gamekeeping with such care and skill. Somehow, what happens in the countryside appears to so many to be quaint rather than real.
I have listened to the Minister's speeches, but I have never heard a throb of support for the countryside in his remarks. He is credible when he talks about towns, but it is difficult to believe him when he talks about the countryside.
It is extremely unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman has attempted to make this a partisan issue, when clearly it is not. It is also worth pointing out that he has not referred to the fact that, although some Conservative Members disapprove of hunting, none is a member of the Committee. I wonder whether it will demolish the right hon. Gentleman's argument when I mention a farmer in my area, who is one of the largest landowners in Pembrokeshire. He has said clearly that he is totally opposed to hunting. He is a working farmer with a great interest in the countryside. He is also an extremely prominent Conservative in Preseli Pembrokeshire.
The hon. Lady misses two points. We are not discussing hunting at the moment. We are debating an amendment that relates to people who are not hunting. She should listen to the debate. [Interruption.] She will get no help from her hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who clearly does not understand the issue at all. She intervened on my speech, and I am happy to reply to her, but she could at least listen to my answer.
I am arguing not about whether hunting should exist, but whether, if hunting is to be banned, we should criminalise those who have nothing to do with the hunt. I should be very surprised if the farmer to which the hon. Lady referred did not understand what I am saying. The wording in the Bill needs to be changed if people such as gamekeepers are to be protected. I am sure that the hon. Lady is very close to her constituents. If she asked them not about hunting but whether they wanted to ensure that gamekeepers could go about their business without fear of becoming criminals, they would almost without exception agree. They would expect her to take great care to ensure that the Bill does not criminalise such people.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
One ought also to accept that, in addition to those who are organised in their concern for looking after wildlife, many others in the countryside could easily prove subject to the provisions. I realise that that is not the intention, but such circumstances could easily arise for the many who, for example, regularly walk with dogs in the countryside. For them, there is no voice. They have no equivalent of, say, the National Gamekeepers Organisation. Because the clauses are badly drafted, they will be extremely exposed. However, there is a way out of the problem and I hope that the Minister will take it.
If the burden of proof were made more sensible and were couched in terms that could be readily understood by those in the countryside, the criminal law need not apply in such circumstances. The problem is that we are contemplating making criminals of people who are essentially law abiding, and on whom the countryside depends for law and order.
I want to express my final point carefully, because I do not want to suggest in any way that I am one of those who would encourage people to break laws, even where I disagree with those laws. However, there is a deep concern in the countryside that the current laws are not properly kept, and certainly not properly enforced. If we add to the burdens of the police the ill phrased criminalities that are before us, we will criminalise many country people who clearly are not criminals.
Moreover, the majority will feel that an already thinly stretched police force will be expected to enforce badly drafted legislation, and will thereby be able to do less of the very little that is already done to protect people's lives and property. It is no good kidding ourselves: there is a universal feeling throughout the countryside that the level of policing is already far too low. This is not the place to argue whether that feeling is justified or to debate the reasons why; I am merely stating the fact that such a feeling exists. The Parliamentary Secretary may believe that feeling to be wrong, and I would agree that the argument is sometimes overstated, but she will agree that it exists.
When asked, most people in my significantly rural constituency—it has 74 miles of coastline extending through Suffolk—say that the police are not sufficiently well manned or resourced to ensure that laws are obeyed. People do not feel that their property or person is being properly protected. Were this badly drafted Bill to pass into law, even those who were not directly affected by it would feel as if they were. They would say, ``People whom we know to be perfectly decent are being sought by the police, yet I am unable to protect myself or my property.''
I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman about whether the Bill is badly drafted. My judgment is that it is well drafted but that the difficulties of prohibition are so great that, however well we draft it, we will inevitably end up with the sort of problems that we are discussing.
The hon. Gentleman may be right. I was trying to be as polite as possible because when a Bill is wrongly passed in principle, as this has been, we have to look at each new issue not to undermine the Bill but to ensure that it does not undermine itself. I am merely suggesting that we must seek a better way of drafting this legislation. If I were to be absolutely honest, my view would have to be close to that of the hon. Gentleman, since I oppose the Bill in principle, although I do not hunt, and because this sort of restraint of liberty is extremely difficult to carry through—we ought not to behave like this in a free society.
In a sense, the drafting difficulties result from the basic wrongness of the Bill. However we have had that debate, I am afraid, and we have lost it—lost it in its entirety, as far as I am concerned, and in the rather moderate way in which the hon. Gentleman has put forward his case. Having done so, we have to assume that it is our job to try to draft it as well as possible.
Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. O£pik), my presumption is that the Bill is not badly drafted. I can understand the reservations of principle and the views about liberty and an open society, but I have genuinely struggled to follow the argument about costs and policing. I ask that the right hon. Gentleman at least refers to the information given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who said that in Scotland post-1959, following the prohibition of hunting deer with dogs, the policing bill for enforcement has been nil. The evidence of massively reduced costs surely supports a different argument, namely, that the legislation will free resources that are being deployed to police the hunt for use in other issues of rural safety that the police would much prefer to tackle. Ought we not to pursue the argument on the basis of the evidence in front of us, which is that the costs are massively reduced rather than likely to spiral wildly out of control?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but first, I want to listen to the people who are doing the job. The police have the same severe reservations. They have behaved with perfect propriety and they did not make those statements before the House voted on the Bill. Now that it has voted, they have made clear their views, which are that the Bill will massively increase policing problems.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Alan Simpson) may well have been unavoidably absent during the Committee's proceedings this morning when his hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole was debating that point with me. I think that my right hon. Friend was also unavoidably absent. The point is that the costs of policing hunting are the costs of restraining hunt saboteurs from interfering with what is at present a lawful activity. The reverse does not apply. It seemed to me, therefore—this is the argument that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole was incapable of understanding—that the banning of hunting does not create a requirement for additional policing, manpower or resources. To argue that it does, is to miss entirely the point of why police have to attend hunts: it is to protect the hunts from the illegal activities of saboteurs.
My hon. and learned Friend is right, but I have to answer the hon. Member for Nottingham, South directly on two issues. The first is that the police tell us that the Bill will cause considerable additional policing—[Hon. Members: ``No.'']—That is not what we have been told. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will quote in extenso what the police have said.
The second issue is that I want to listen to gamekeepers and the like—the people who do the job. Their professional advisers say—and their understanding is—that they will be criminalised because of the way in which the Bill is drafted. That is not true of the legislation in Scotland, so there is no parallel. The provisions need to be changed to protect people who are lawfully going about their business.
A third reason for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South is that there are large numbers of hunts throughout England. Many are not fashionable but ordinary, and they involve ordinary people. The resultant policing problems will be manifestly difficult, and added to those will be all the problems that arise from the legislation, which contains provisions that do not concern the hunt. That suggests that we must rewrite the Bill so that it excludes the people of whom we speak.
Why should people object to such rewriting? It cannot be because they fear that it would not enable them to ban hunting. The issue is precisely the sort of thing that a Committee ought to put right. The Committee's purpose is to ensure that we do not make bad law even when we have made what is, in my view, a bad decision. I am not arguing about the decision, but let us make good law that does not mean that good people find themselves criminalised. That would be reasonable thing for a Committee to do. To people outside, it would suggest a careful approach from a Parliament that needs to show an understanding of the countryside. We need to show that we have listened to those who work there, instead of having the arrogant view that we know best and that they ought not to be listened to.
I shall refer briefly to the implications of the amendments for gamekeepers and, by way of introduction, will mention police costs. I still believe that as soon as hunt saboteurs have finished with fox hunting—if the legislation is passed—some or all of them will move on to other country sports. Some already have done so in the case of fishing and the police will have to be deployed to allow other people legally to pursue permitted sports in peace.
Based on what I have seen of hunt saboteur activity, I certainly believe that some people have a firm conviction that, in the pursuit of their view of what constitutes animal welfare, they are justified in taking action that is against the law and in depriving others of their freedom. They will apply those techniques to other sports that they want banned. That is not a comment on the views of Labour Members, but on what will happen, which will affect police resources.
Many people in my constituency are employed as gamekeepers and many more are employed in other aspects of countryside management. My son attended Kirkley hall, which has a widely respected gamekeeping course that trains people to a high level. The profession is now demanding and requires high levels of training.
Gamekeepers are apprehensive about the enactment of the Bill. Much as I have sought to reassure them that there is no likelihood that it will be enacted in this Session, they are still worried lest it should be. They are particularly worried about its implications for their legal activities: maintaining the balance and supporting game shooting activities, which is what they are employed to do. They are also apprehensive, as I said, about becoming the targets of protest if foxhunting is abolished and its active opponents seek a new cause.
I have not dwelt on that matter because I do not feel that we can solve the problems that the Bill will cause gamekeepers through these amendments. The argument that a civil rather than a criminal penalty should be used is seductive and I understand why it was advanced. It is clearly based on the justified belief that we should not make criminals of people who set out to obey the law as best they can and get on with their job. However, for various reasons—not least for that advanced by the Minister on the problem of the level of proof required under civil proceedings—the only way to deal with the problems faced by gamekeepers under the Bill is to recast those parts of it that will impact adversely upon them. We will have to pay a lot of attention to amendments later in our proceedings.
As I understand it, if a gamekeeper sends his dog down into a coal cellar to chase a rat, he will be guilty of an offence under the Bill. Many such manifest absurdities emerge when someone who does the job of gamekeeper in the course of his ordinary life is shown the legislation. We will have to alter those sections of the Bill, if we are not to expose gamekeepers to the risk of criminal prosecution. Perhaps such a prosecution would fail, but that is not much consolation to a gamekeeper who has had to appear in the magistrates court, with all the emotional trauma that that causes for a law-abiding citizen. He will lose days of work. If he finishes up in court, his employer may begin to wonder about his future. All those possibilities are extremely worrying to gamekeepers. We will not solve their problems with the group of amendments that we are considering. We must return to the problems at a later stage in our discussion of the schedule.
I shall elaborate briefly on a point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I do not know whether he has read the newspaper article that was published last week when the Bill was in a Committee of the whole House. An article by Mr. Chris Rundle in the Western Daily Press states:
Animal rights campaigners last night declared war on the multi-million pound gamebird shooting industry. The League Against Cruel Sports vowed that it would make the sport its next target if it was successful in winning a ban on hunting with dogs. Coming just a day before politicians vote on banning hunting with hounds, the League's war cry could lay the foundation for years of unrest in the countryside. It also sent shockwaves through the West's pheasant shooting industry, which is worth around £90 million. The new battle lines were drawn up last night as hundreds of hunt supporters gathered outside Parliament in a round-the-clock vigil to save their sport. The Government has always said that the issue of hunting with dogs is not linked to any other countryside pursuit, but it is clear now that the issue of blood sports will not end with tomorrow's hunting bill. The new attack on hunting was revealed by the League's Head of West Country Operations, Graham Sirl, who helps to run 2,000 acres of animal refuges on Exmoor.
The right hon. Gentleman is right, as are others who have drawn attention to the incremental battle that is to be waged.
I shall draw on two arguments advanced earlier in the debate: first, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and, secondly, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made a point that is frequently forgotten in debates such as this, but it is important and needs reiteration. The criminal law and our criminal justice system are based on consent: the consent of the electorate to the majority party's programme, upon which it forms the Government, the consent of the legislators to each piece of legislation that affects the criminal justice system, and the consent of the electorate that the legislation should be binding upon them. Following that, we have the consent of the electorate that the police should enforce the law. This may seem strange to those who do not—as I do—practice in the courts or sit as a Crown court recorder, but the system is also based on the consent of the defendant—the consent to be arrested on a specific charge, to be brought before the courts and to be sentenced.
I sit as a part-time Crown court judge at Middlesex Crown court, which is situated on the other side of Parliament square from the Houses of Parliament. Only rarely do security staff have to guard the defendant or, what is more to the point, the judge or others in the court from the defendant—usually a man. That is because everyone involved in the making of the law, its enforcement and its administration—and those of our fellow citizens caught up in the system who are brought before the courts—understands that there is a proper way of creating law, administering it and policing it. The defendants who are found guilty in face of a not-guilty plea all believe that the law is legitimate and that the process by which they are brought to justice is legitimate. They, too, consent.
Is the hon. and learned Gentleman telling the Committee that 10 years ago, when people refused to pay the poll tax because they believed it to be illegitimate, the law was passed by Parliament because the Executive believed that there was a wider consent?
The hon. Gentleman—he and I share many interests, but I shall not dwell on them—makes my point for me and I am grateful for his perceptive intervention. The poll tax was a classic modern example of a law that did not have the consent of the public. It was pushed through by a Government with a large majority. We now have a Labour Government with a large majority. Such Governments tend to make Back Benchers thoughtless and Executives greedy.
I was not a Member of Parliament when the poll tax legislation was enacted by Parliament, nor was the hon. Gentleman, although several other hon. Member were—I see them nodding with hideous reminiscences of the time that they spent dealing with that Bill. The Conservative Government was brought up short. The leader changed and it was clear that the poll tax legislation did not have sufficient public consent to make it workable.
On that point—this is directly relevant to what the hon. Gentleman said—I have some information sheets, dated 13 December 2000, which I believe Bob Worcester of MORI has circulated to all members of the Committee—[Hon. Members: ``No.''] I shall arrange for Mr. Worcester to arrange for copies to be made available. The question was about people's views on hunting with dogs. It asked:
Are you personally in favour or opposed to people hunting with dogs?
Nationally, 78 per cent. opposed hunting and only 8 per cent. supported the proposition. Among rural voters, 63 per cent. are opposed to hunting with dogs, although 21 per cent. support it. The remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman are pure assertion; the facts are contained in the MORI documentation.
Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that in December, the Channel 4 ``Powerhouse'' programme conducted an independent NOP poll, which indicated that 48 per cent. of the public supported a ban, and that 52 per cent. supported either regulation or supervision. In other words, a minority did not support a ban. We must debate the issue on the merits of the case, rather than attempting to beat each other over the head with opinion polls that we could quote ad infinitum.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. In my contribution to this evening's proceedings, it was not my intention to swap anecdotes about this poll or that. One can pick from any number of figures and the Government frequently do, to support a policy. I do not care about opinion polls—[Hon. Members: ``Oh?''] I do not care about those specific polls, but I am concerned about the concept of consent. There will be a majority view, but I do not worry about the figures one way or another. The point is that there is insufficient public consent.
I understand why the hon. and learned Gentleman wants to ignore polls and I recognise his point about consent, which is his view but not mine. However, if that is his view, and he speaks as a Front Bencher, if the Bill reached the statute book would a future Conservative Government repeal it?
Let me correct the hon. Gentleman's misapprehensions. First, I am a Front Bencher, as I have the honour to be shadow Attorney General. Indeed, I was recently described on BBC Radio 5 as the ``eternal general''. However, I do not speak in this Committee as anything other than the holder of a free vote, so the things that I say today are no more binding on my party than the things that the hon. Gentleman says are on his. I speak as an individual Member of Parliament—[Interruption.] I do not know whether he wants to know the answers to the questions that he posed. Perhaps he does not, so I shall move on.
I am not in a position to turn a free vote into a party political issue that would need to be whipped. The hon. Gentleman has his views about the good sense of the Bill and I have mine. My views are not secret: he heard me speak today, and he heard my views, both on the Floor of the House and in the Standing Committee that considered the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). My views and votes are there for the world to see. At all stages of all debates on this and similar Bills, I have made it clear where I lie, and I have told my constituents that. I am not in the business of writing my view on a free-vote issue into the Conservative party manifest and I would not expect him to bind the Government on abortion, capital punishment or any other free-vote issue.
Before I was intervened on—to greater or lesser effect—I was about to deal with a matter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal drew to the attention of the Committee. He went to a funeral this morning and was in church with some of his constituents who live in a village. They live and work in the country and—I hope I am not misrepresenting his remarks—they are bewildered by the prospect of the Bill.
I would not dream of importing their thoughts. I merely said that looking round those people, I could see a significant number who, although wholly honourable and upright, would be turned into potential criminals by the Bill. That is what saddens me.
Many of those people must be bewildered by the debates about the Bill that are taking place in Committee and in the Chamber. They may reasonably ask themselves what they have done wrong that they should be made criminals. They may say, ``Yes, it is true that we are not a majority''—as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said a moment ago—``but we are a large and bewildered minority. We are a law-abiding minority—a group of country dwellers who, by and large, support the police and are content to be policed in accordance with the laws of the land.''
Those people need to have an explanation as to why this draconian Bill is necessary and why they should be singled out for criminalisation. How will the Bill improve animal welfare? Are its criminal penalties proportionate to the activities that will be criminalised? The rural economy is incredibly fragile at the moment—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a hubbub of conversation and I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman. Every member of the Committee has a right to be heard, so can we have a bit of hush?
If the right hon. Gentleman requires me to speak more slowly so that he can understand what I am saying—[Interruption.] I have been accused of many things in this House, but mumbling is not one of them.
My hon. and learned Friend is pursuing a most important argument. Will he elaborate on it by agreeing that opinion in the countryside is extremely inflamed as a result of the ignorance and prejudice that has led to the position that we now face, that the Bill will not diminish that anger and hostility, but inflame it further, and that this is a genuinely serious matter that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand?
It most certainly cannot be so dismissed. Regrettably, many people who support the Bill are not prepared to explain their reasons for doing so. They simply say that it is a given: fox hunting must be banned, end of story. The people to whom my hon. Friend and I must address our weekend surgery remarks are entitled to receive that explanation.
The frustration to which my hon. Friend alluded and the bewilderment that I mentioned will result in the largest peaceful demonstration in the capital city that has been seen in our lifetimes—perhaps ever. On 18 March, people from England, Wales, Scotland—and no doubt from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United States of America and many other countries where hunting—[Interruption.] Even from Manchester. People will come to London—
Yes, they will come in great numbers. I should not be surprised if in excess of 500,000 people—perhaps many more—were in London on 18 March.
Those people represent the confusion, bewilderment, disappointment, concern and sense of unfairness felt as a direct consequence of the Bill. Will the Minister explain, so that her remarks can be passed on to those who need to hear them, why this unfair, unsatisfactory and unjust Bill should become law? Otherwise, those who come to demonstrate peaceably on 18 March will leave London without a satisfactory explanation.
I accept that the Government take an entirely neutral stance on the Bill and the issue that we are debating, but they are responsible for the carriage of the Bill and the drafting and legal expertise behind it and it is incumbent on them to explain, clarify and settle worries. The Government can justly ignore the emotion, ruderies and insults that have from time to time passed from side to side on this argument, both in Parliament and outside. However, they must pause and explain so that my constituents and those of a great many Members of Parliament can understand why they should be turned into criminals.
First, may I say what a pleasure it is to be in Committee with you, Mrs Roe, in the Chair. I well remember our happy days at county hall and our exchanges on the police committee. It is nice to see that we have both translated ourselves elsewhere. Our exchanges were always friendly and I look back on those days with misty and rheumy eyes.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex has left the Room temporarily because I wanted to congratulate him on getting the names of both Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke into the same speech. We both have a great feeling for 18th century politics and he will recall that Fox and Burke fell out rather badly over the French revolution.[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has probably guessed that I am speaking about him, but I am doing so in a friendly fashion. For his benefit, I will say again that I congratulate him on referring to Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke in the same speech. They were great friends, but they broke over the French revolution. Indeed, when Edmund Burke made his speech on the Floor of the House, Charles James Fox broke down in tears. The hon. Gentleman bears far more resemblance to Charles James Fox than I. He and I share a friendship, but we will have to break on the question of foxhunting, hare coursing and the other pursuits covered by the Bill. Although there are times when differences breach friendships, I am sure that neither of us will break down in tears.
I did not recognise the pattern of Elysian fields created by gamekeepers described by the hon. Gentleman and how preserving game, dealing with foxes and providing for foxhunting had somehow shaped the appearance of the countryside. The common agricultural policy has done more than gamekeeping and foxhunting ever did in that regard. On train journeys—which no one takes any more because it is so difficult—one sees field after field of hideous yellow oilseed rape and how miles of hedgerows have been blasted out of existence. Those sorts of things have shaped the present face of the countryside far more than gamekeepers and the preservation of foxhunting.
I want to underline what my hon. Friend has just said by quoting from the bible itself—the Burns report. It states on page 18:
Nowadays . . . hunting with dogs is likely to form only a relatively minor factor in determining farmers' and landowners' land management practices.
That is the reality.
Mr. Soames rose—
Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say—he paints a caricature of the countryside—there are indeed parts of the countryside that look as he has described. Incidentally, very few of those parts--the prairie farmlands of Britain, for example, which I think are odious to look at—will be where there is a great deal of hunting, as opposed to Belvoir vale in Nottinghamshire, where a patchwork of countryside is intricately laid out for sport. What the hon. Gentleman says is untrue. I know of many hunts that plant covers and trees, keep hedges in good repair and run hedge-laying competitions to improve their area. If anyone does to the countryside the sort of things that the hon. Gentleman is mentioning, it is greatly deprecated.
I am only responding to what the hon. Gentleman said. He talked about the shape and appearance of the countryside. He did not qualify what he said. I refer him again to paragraph 77 on page 18 of the Burns report, which says:
Hunting has clearly played a very significant role in the past in the formation of the rural landscape and in the creation and management of areas of nature conservation. Nowadays, however, hunting with dogs is likely to form only a relatively minor factor in determining farmers' and landowners' land management practices.
Therefore, not just I am saying such a thing; it is said in the report that all of us have praised to the skies.
Let me pick up a couple of points made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. For all his famed moderation, he can be singularly unpleasant when addressing other people and their views, and he deliberately misrepresented me. He has done so on a number of occasions, both in the House and outside; I do not know what I have to do to convince him. He might want to misrepresent himself, but I should be grateful if he did not keep misrepresenting me and my views.
I have no hidden agenda--none whatever. That is probably why I am a humble Back Bencher rather than a great world statesperson. I tend to say what I believe in and say it openly, so that no one is in any doubt about my position. I find that a lot easier than having to remember all the lies told; it makes life a lot simpler. I have told the right hon. Gentleman about my position on fishing. There is no wish in the House, or any intention on my part or that of my hon. Friends, to move from this Bill to any form of legislation to ban angling—either game fishing or coarse fishing—and it is about time that he was prepared to accept our word.
Let me say another thing to the right hon. Gentleman. When he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he said something that I have always remembered, because it was good. He was carrying out a good policy on scientific whaling, well supported by myself as an individual and by many others. The Japanese--the venal Japanese when it comes to scientific whaling--once said to him, ``We might kill whales, but you kill cattle'', to which he replied, ``Yes, but we don't chase them through five fields before shooting a harpoon into them.'' I make the same point to him with regard to fishing. Fishing is not about ripping a creature to pieces; it is not about chasing it down a canal or a river or across a lake. It is a completely different form of activity. Before I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, I want to make it clear that there is no agenda with regard to angling on my part, on the part of my party or, as far as I am aware, on the part of any Labour Member.
I am happy to apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he feels that I have misrepresented him, and I am perfectly prepared to say that he has no hidden agenda. I believe that there is a hidden agenda, but clearly he is not part of it. I withdraw my remarks if I have given the impression that he was.
I can envisage very little that is close to sticking a harpoon into a whale and playing it and sticking a hook into a fish and playing that for hours and hours. The hon. Gentleman proves the case that there is no moral distinction between hunting, angling and shooting. It is a matter not of morality, but of sentimentality.
One must be careful because we are talking about hunting with dogs. There is a big difference between a fish and a mammal. The Japanese never seemed to work that out, and it appears that the right hon. Gentleman has not done so either. What does he mean about playing a fish for hours and hours? I do not know what he is talking about. Most fish are hooked, caught and landed fairly easily in this country. I am not talking about fishing on the high seas for game fish, such as marlin. I accept the withdrawal of his statement about my having a hidden agenda. I shall not have to listen to him saying it again. There is no hidden agenda elsewhere.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal made some unpleasant and personal comments about me, too. Perhaps he might like to know that I represent a predominantly rural constituency, and that rural opinion is not unanimous, as he portrayed it. I have visited my local kennels and talked to hunters who have been helpful in advising me on these matters. How dare he claim a monopoly of wisdom on rural areas in such a supercilious and ill informed way?
Mr. Gummer rose—
There is no need for us to get personal. I respect the views of Opposition Members, even though I may not agree with them. I do not try to personalise their position and make it look as if they are ignorant, prejudiced and—in the words of my hon. Friend the Minister—ill informed. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says in good faith, as he is defending his constituents, as he sees them. The unpleasant and personal fashion in which he speaks belies the image that he likes to project as a rather holy and sanctimonious gentleman.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman noticed that his hon. Friend the Minister used the word ``hunter'', which would not be used in his constituency. It shows that he does not call people by the name that they want to be called, so it was not unreasonable for me to say that when he speaks on urban matters, he does so with credibility, but on rural matters, he does not.
The right hon. Gentleman sneered at the Bill's wording by saying that the phrase ``hunting with dogs'' was ``ignorant'' and should have referred to hounds. All hounds are dogs, but not all dogs are hounds. We understand that point. The term ``dogs'' is used because the matter is not just about foxhunting. Anyone listening to our debates would think that the only issue was foxhunting, but there is also hare coursing. Greyhounds are not hounds, but dogs. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to nit pick, we shall get nowhere. This debate is about not just foxhunting, but the evil practice of hare coursing, which I am still waiting to hear an Opposition member of the Committee defend.
I have already spoken for longer than I intended, but I should like to deal with a comment of the hon. and learned Member for Buckingham, who made great play of a statement by Mr. Graham Sirl.
My apologies to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough are munificent and plentiful. I suddenly realise that I confused him with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and given my earlier comments, I doubt whether I could have dug a deeper trap for myself than to have made such an insulting mistake. I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to a statement by Graham Sirl, an employee of the west country branch of the League Against Cruel Sports. It was an ex cathedra, personal statement. [Hon. Members: ``Ah!''] On being asked a question, the hon. and learned Gentleman said that in replying he spoke not for the Conservative party but for himself. Although that is good enough for him, Graham Sirl is deemed to speak not only for the League Against Cruel Sports but, it would appear, for the entire animal welfare movement.
That is a very interesting suggestion. We know full well that even though the newspapers like to represent us as speaking for our party—or for the Government or the Opposition—in many cases we speak for ourselves. The hon. and learned Gentleman's argument may well be compatible with the lurid headlines of newspapers such as the Western Daily Press, but it certainly does not accord with the truth. As far as I am aware, the League Against Cruel Sports has no intention of moving on to fishing or shooting. Doubtless, there are individuals in the organisation, and many people in this country, who feel that fishing and shooting should be banned. However, as I have said, there is no majority in this place, or in the population as a whole, in favour of such a ban. Nor does a ban form part of a hidden agenda on our part.
Finally, I want to respond to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who said that if a gamekeeper were to allow his dog to chase a rat in a cellar, he would have committed an offence. I do not see how that accords with part II exceptions, given that paragraph 8 makes it clear that rodent control is excepted. If such a circumstance were to arise, the gamekeeper would have a perfect defence. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should consider that and respond if he wishes.
I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to a cellar in a house; if so, the suggestion is lurid and extravagant. His definition does not accord with my understanding of the schedule. Is he suggesting that the courts will take leave of their senses, that there will be no use of reason? The point that he is making is just a further scare tactic.
As the hon. Gentleman knows from the debate in the House, the anomalies in the Bill about animal welfare are what concern me. Is he suggesting that it would be perfectly all right for the gamekeeper's dog to chase and kill a rat in a cellar, but not if it did it underground outside his house?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. The whole point of the Committee is to clear up any ambiguities—that is what we need to address. If there are genuine points to be clarified, we must do so. In the end, we must assume that the courts will act reasonably. Although there might be differences between their interpretation of the law and the Act that we think that we have passed—this is why it is incumbent on us to ensure that the Bill is as perfect as possible when it reaches the statute book—we must still apply the rule of reasonable behaviour. What the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed suggested would not come under the definition of reasonable behaviour.
Will the hon. Gentleman help me on one point? As they are both mammals, why does he make a distinction between the rat and the fox? I think that that is an important issue.
I do not. The right hon. Gentleman and I could no doubt have an interesting discussion about the issue—although I do not see how, given the point that he just made—but he knows that I have already put on record my feelings about rats. I would not kill them, but that is another matter. Such a comparison is not helpful to us or the debate; it does not seem worth pursuing. There will be points in the Bill that require attention, because we do not want to create faulty legislation.
No; we will run out of time. We shall have many happy hours together over the days to come.
I wish that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal would not talk about us criminalising individuals. We are not; we are seeking to criminalise an activity. The individuals will criminalise themselves if they then decide to pursue what we have criminalised as an activity. I am sure that when we pass the law to criminalise hunting with dogs, the law-abiding folk in the countryside will keep it. I have more faith in their law-abiding intentions than in those of some Opposition Members.
What a pleasure it is to be serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Roe. I recall the many occasions on which we served together on the Administration Committee. As Chairman, you engendered in me great respect for your ability to deal with difficult issues and to arrive at a conclusion, despite the problems of the case before you. I know that we will require all of those skills if we are to steer our way through this Standing Committee.
I shall attempt to bring the attention of Committee members back to the amendments, which we began debating this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury on tabling amendments that have generated a stimulating, interesting and wide-ranging debate. This is my first ever opportunity to contribute to a debate on the subject. Although I may not be the only member of the Committee to say that I regretted my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary having to leave this morning's sitting to attend to other matters, it gave me an opportunity to enter the debate and to put the Government's position on these important and serious matters.
Under the Bill as drafted, a person commits an offence if they hunt a wild mammal with a dog, knowingly permits land, or a dog that belongs to them, to be used for hunting , or is involved in various ways in hare coursing events. As the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, if amendments Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 were agreed, all those activities would no longer be regarded as an offence subject to a criminal conviction determined by the courts. Instead, by virtue of amendment No. 11, they would all be subject to a penalty to be determined by the Secretary of State. The remaining amendments are consequential on that policy. There are a number of reasons why I believe that the amendments should not be made. To begin with, they would completely undermine the decision taken last week by the whole House to make hunting with dogs a criminal offence. I turn for a moment to the arguments advanced during the debate.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury and, to an extent, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal argued that the law should be clear. The hon. Gentleman argued that ignorance of the law was no defence, but that the Bill's meaning should be clear. The Bill is one of the simplest to read and understand of any that I have had the privilege to accord line-by-line scrutiny in all the time that I have served in the House and on Standing Committees. Normally, one needs the extensive legal expertise with which the hon. and learned Member for Harborough kindly but wrongly credited me on Thursday, when we began our debates in Committee. The Bill seems to me to be fairly straightforward.
Close to my home there is a beautiful footpath that follows the route of an old railway line along a raised embankment. That embankment teems with rabbits and hares. Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies may like to know that urban ones such as mine have extensive wildlife. I hesitate to introduce my two Belgian shepherd dogs to the debate, given the aversion of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex to dogs. They are slightly overweight dogs and out of condition, like me. [Hon. Members: ``Nonsense.''] When I exercised my dogs, they used to chase rabbits, and on many occasions since I was elected I have asked myself whether, if they caught a rabbit by mistake, as it would have been, I would be left in breach of a law such as this legislation.
I often met a neighbour who used to exercise three very fine greyhounds. He always exercised them on a leash, as he was developing their role as professional athletes. If that neighbour of mine met four or five of his friends who shared a similar interest in racing greyhounds and arranged to loose them after hares with the intention of catching the hares, they would be in breach of this Bill and would be committing a criminal offence.
The criminal penalties in the Bill accord with all other animal welfare legislation, such as the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. On a practical level, a fixed-penalty system for offences would remove any element of discretion from the courts. The courts can consider mitigating or aggravating circumstances in each case and reach a judgment on the appropriate level of penalty. For example, a minor breach of the law could be accorded a lesser fine. A fixed-penalty system makes good sense for minor matters, such as parking offences, as one hon. Gentleman said, where the facts are not usually in doubt, but for more serious matters punishable by fines of up to £5,000, the courts should be involved and should be allowed to exercise their discretion.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough came closest to enunciating that point in this wide-ranging debate. He made a serious contribution and invited us to consider seriously—and we have done so—whether we should invoke a criminal conviction. The House considered that at length and not lightly. The hon. Gentleman made a number of other points.
Does the hon. Lady consider that the unlawful poisoning of animals is a serious offence? Under the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954 and the Animals (Cruel Poisons) Act 1962, such offences merit a level 3 fine. Can she explain why it is appropriate that someone who inadvertently commits an offence should be stung at level 5, whereas someone who goes around indiscriminately poisoning animals should be penalised only at level 3?
Again, I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to consider my point about allowing the courts to judge such matters and to apply the penalty that is appropriate to the offence that has been committed. The House considered whether the offence should be criminal or civil, and made its determination. It is for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I to present the arguments in response to the amendments in the light of whether they undermine or strengthen the House's decision on criminality.
The hon. Lady has not quite answered my point. Why should a nasty piece of indiscriminate poisoning incur only a level 3 fine—that is, a maximum of £1,000? The legislation will allow for a level 5, or £5,000, fine. I accept that magistrates may not wish to impose the maximum fine. Those dealing with a case of indiscriminate poisoning have no discretion to go beyond a fine of £1,000, but those dealing with a hunting case may go as high as £5,000. The reason for that large discrepancy has not been satisfactorily explained to me.
I am aware that several members of the Committee feel strongly that the pursuit of hunting should be allowed to continue, and that there is almost no answer that I can give the hon. and learned Gentleman that will satisfy him. I simply repeat that penalties should be proportionate to achieving the objectives of the law concerned, and that the penalty in the schedule has been judged to be thus proportionate.
The objective of the schedule is that it should be proportionate to the offence and deter people from pursuing the pastime after the Bill is enacted. The Human Rights Act 1998 requires penalties to be proportionate and the House, having considered the matter, is satisfied that that is so.
Virtually every criminal justice Act that passes through this House has to try to achieve the right balance in terms of a variety of different offences, and hon. Members always argue about how to do that. One could argue, for instance, that the penalty should be greater to make it commensurate with the penalty for pursuing badgers. We should not allow ourselves to be led down the blind alley of seeing particular cases as being overly significant.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point.
I do not intend to labour the point any further. The proportionality of the penalties is intended to deter, and we have accepted the view of the House that they will achieve the Bill's objective.
Mr. Garnier rose—
I shall not give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman on this point. He may wish to raise other matters, but I am not encouraging him to do so.
I move on to the point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who argued strongly that the drafting of the amendments was at fault. Not every member of the Committee agreed with that. I would not suggest that the wording of the Bill is perfect. Could it be improved? The intention of the amendments is not to tinker with the drafting, but to deal with one of the most fundamental decisions and principles of the Bill, so the argument he advanced does not bear scrutiny when we are considering the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury.
I was proposing that it was clear from the drafting that it was difficult to get the kind of balance that the Committee would want, and that therefore it was better to make sure that we did not criminalise people by using the form that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury suggested. I do not criticise the Minister, but it is difficult to put this in a way that does not cause the sort of argument that we have just heard about why it is more cruel to hunt, for example, than to poison. I thought that this was a good way out.
The right hon. Gentleman has made his case, but the effect of the amendments is not simply to tinker with the drafting of the Bill. Therefore my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I invite the Committee to resist the amendments.
I am reluctant to do so, but I return to the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. He said that we should not be dismissive of the arguments and that the Government must justify and explain the reasons why the Bill is being pursued. There have been lengthy debates on this recently. I can recall many occasions on Fridays when the issue has been the subject of private Member's Bill debates. We are now seeking to enact the will of Parliament, and it is that will that the Government will protect during the Bill's passage through both Houses.
The problem with that answer is that is almost imperious and I know that the hon. Lady does not behave like that. The message seems to be ``I have said what I have said and that is the answer.'' The hon. Member for Pendle made a good point about the poll tax during an intervention. I translate that point to this Bill. Those who want to ban hunting have a majority, but that is merely a numerical response. There are other arguments. For the poll tax to be an acceptable way of raising local government revenue, it needed more than parliamentary consent. It had to have popular consent. It had the one, but not the other, and the Government and their friends are in the same position. I hope that the hon. Lady will do us the favour of explaining, rather than simply repeating.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is inviting me to go down the path of debating the principle here and the House has already decided that. A number of hon. Members from both sides contributed to the debate and I will not respond to all the points that were advanced.
I was not a Member of Parliament at the time of the poll tax, but one of the important differences is that on that legislation the votes would have been whipped, and hon. Members would have been marshalled through the Lobbies. This Bill was the subject of a free vote and the House has determined the matter on a cross-party basis.
For precisely the reasons that I have just given, I do not intend to respond to the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument or the question of whether individuals should be allowed to continue to enjoy their sport.
Let me turn quickly to the important views expressed by Association of Chief Police Officers. It clearly has an interest in the Bill, as in any legislation that might affect the police. Accordingly, we have made a point of consulting it about the options. Its position is clear. It properly takes the view that it is for Parliament to make the law and for the police to enforce it. It does not wish to become embroiled in what is essentially a political decision. When ACPO representatives were shown an early draft of the Bill they argued strongly that the police needed to be given an explicit power of arrest. We listened to those representations and included what is now paragraph 14 of the schedule. It is perhaps ironic that the hon. Member for Aylesbury seeks to remove that power with amendment No. 24, but I shall deal with that later.
A clear statement of ACPO's views can be found in an article that appeared in The Times--no particular friend to the Government on this matter--on 18 January. Headed ``Police ready to enforce ban'', it is the record of a discussion with Alastair McWhirter, the assistant chief constable of the Wiltshire constabulary. As chairman of ACPO's public order sub-committee legal affairs group, he has been leading for ACPO on this issue. Mr. McWhirter is quoted as saying:
I really would like to dispel the myth being put about that the police think a ban is unenforceable--they do not.
This morning, various hon. Members quoted from a statement issued last week by Tim Hollis, the assistant chief constable of South Yorkshire. Members from all parts of the Committee have quoted from it selectively today to support their point of view, which suggests some ambiguity on ACPO's part.
Home Office Ministers have been engaged in discussions with Tony Burden, who, as I am sure members of the Committee are aware, is the president of ACPO as well as chief constable of South Wales. Mr. Burden has acknowledged that senior officers have expressed their personal views on this issue. That is an entirely proper contribution for them to make to the current debate. Mr. Burden has confirmed, however, that it is too early to reach a final, definitive view on the resource implications of any of the three options in the Bill. [Interruption.] This is important, if hon. Members would care to listen. However, if hunting is banned, ACPO does not expect a significant additional burden on the service beyond its current commitment. I thought it important to put that view from ACPO on the record.
Clearly it will be for the hon. Member for Aylesbury to make his final pitch in favour of the amendments, but I urge members of the Committee to bear in mind the decision in the House and to resist the amendments.
As the Parliamentary Secretary said, this has been a long and wide-ranging debate, which has allowed the Committee to explore in outline a number of the issues that we shall no doubt discuss in greater detail as we proceed through the amendments.
As far as I am aware, this document was being distributed officially by ACPO's press office on behalf of the association last week to present the views put by it to the Government during the consultation to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred.
A number of arguments have been put forward against the amendments and I hope that members of the Committee will forgive me if I try to deal briefly with the main criticisms that were made. I shall not allow myself to be drawn into dealing with every matter that has been raised in this long debate.
One line of criticism, which was voiced by the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, was that—
One argument was that the schedule's definition of offences is precise and that the concerns that I and other Opposition Members expressed about its imprecision were therefore misplaced. We will be able to argue about that in due course, but the definition in paragraph 21, in particular, is far from comprehensive. In any case, to judge by my experience at the Home Office under previous Administrations, however skilful the parliamentary draftsman, and however well intentioned the officials and Ministers responsible for a given Bill, it is not unknown for Home Secretaries of differing political stripes to lose legal challenges, or to discover that the statutes for which they are responsible have unexpected consequences.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out, the amendments would in practice lead to the end of organised hunting, which is what supporters of the Bill want, because people would conform to the law and would not wish to incur the civil penalty. However, the amendments would also avoid the imposition of additional risks to people such as gamekeepers, to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex referred.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who cannot be with us this evening, said that we should not allow the police to dictate whether legislation is introduced. That is a truism with which I agree, but it is clear that the views of the police on the advisability and impact of a particular policy are a material consideration. Every Home Office criminal justice Bill requires that Ministers consider its impact on the police, the courts and the Prison Service. It is also right that Parliament should be able to take account of the views of the police on the impact of the Bill.
We should regard it as our duty, moreover, to assess likely public reaction to the Bill and its impact on relations between the police and the wider public. No Labour Member who has spoken today has challenged the fears expressed by Mr. Hollis and in the ACPO document to which I have referred. A ban on hunting would have a serious and damaging effect on relations between the police and those members of rural communities on whom the police rely for effective partnership in fighting crime.
Another argument—advanced by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole in particular, and with which the hon. Member for Nottingham, South agreed—is that a ban would save money. However, that was not the view of ACPO members as expressed in the document that was published and distributed last week—
Certainly, they would enforce the law. I would expect any professional police officer to say that of any Bill presented by any lawfully elected Parliament. ACPO also stated that hard decisions would have to be taken on policing priorities and the deployment of thinly stretched resources.
Those who argued that a ban would save money were also ignoring the arguments of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough that some of those who are most passionate for a ban would, if a ban on hunting were achieved, move on to attack other sports. I am content to accept the assurances given by the hon. Member for West Ham.
When I have appeared on platforms with RSPCA representatives, it has been made clear that their policy is to seek an end to hunting, but not shooting or fishing. That is not the view of an organisation such as the Hunt Saboteurs Association—nor is it the view of the senior members of the League Against Cruel Sports. Mr. Sirl, who was mentioned, is not merely an employee in the west country but a former chief officer of the LACS. His views should be taken seriously when trying to assess the opinions of people who support that organisation.
The individual views of people, however eminent or active they may be, should not necessarily be given excessive weight in terms of future policies. I have said before that there is not great support in this country, or in the House, for a ban on fishing or shooting. The hon. Gentleman must at least concede that there is substantial, if not majority support, in the House and the country to ban the activities that are described in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman cannot keep trying to scare other people into thinking there is another agenda, to which we are party. There is not.
I said that I accept, without qualification, the assurances that the hon. Gentleman gave. However, we are debating the impact on police resources and manpower of a new criminal offence introduced by the Bill. Even a relatively small number of people—a few hundred activists—could tie up a considerable amount of police time, police officers and resources to stop them disrupting legitimate lawful fishing or game shooting.
No. While I accept that there will be differences in the Committee about the principle as well as the detail of the Bill, my amendments offer the Government a way to end organised hunting, which they want and which, to my regret, the House has endorsed. My amendments would reduce ambiguity and protect both police resources and relations with the members of rural communities on whose partnership they greatly rely. I want to test the Committee's opinion of my amendments.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 16.