With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert `other than a rabbit'.
No. 3, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert `other than a mink'.
No. 41, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert
`other than one of a species designated in paragraph 2'.
No. 42, in page 19, line 28, at end insert—
`2.—(1) The Secretary of State may be order designate species of wild animal to which paragraph 1 does not apply.
(2) An order under this paragraph
(a) shall be made by statutory instrument, and
(b) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by each House of Parliament.'.
The purpose of each amendment is to provide a general exception to the offence of hunting a wild mammal with a dog, as defined in paragraph 1. Amendment No. 1 would make an exception for hunting rodents with dogs, amendment No. 2 for hunting rabbits and amendment No. 3 for hunting mink. Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 are slightly different, although they address the same issue. They would provide for the Secretary of State to designate a particular species as an exception to the general ban on hunting with dogs and for those exceptions to be approved by statutory instrument after debate in both Houses of Parliament.
I shall deal fairly briefly with the species that are mentioned in the amendments. The amendments raise questions that not only Committee members but many people outside the House have about the Government's intentions in the schedule and its practical impact on farmers and gamekeepers. I shall deal first with amendment No. 1, which would provide an exception in the case of rodents.
Everybody accepts that rodents—rats, mice, grey squirrels, for example—are pests. Even the average householder or gardener would accept that; certainly any farmer or gamekeeper will know that they are species that have to be controlled. I do not think that there is any difference between the Minister and myself on a point that successive Governments have regarded as important. Indeed, Government correspondence with the Countryside Alliance and others makes it clear that the Government accept that there is, and will remain, a need to control rodents. Even as ardent a defender of animal welfare as the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) has said in previous debates that he accepts fully the need to control an animal such as the brown rat.
People on the other side of the debate might ask why the exception in paragraph 8 is insufficient to protect people who need to control rodent populations by using dogs. I believe that paragraph 8 is inadequate for that purpose, which is why I propose a more general exception in amendment No. 1. The exception provided for in paragraph 8 applies only if hunting takes place without the dog going underground, and if the land on which the hunting takes place belongs to the defendant or to a person who has given the defendant permission to use it. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned on Tuesday, that creates ambiguities in the law about the interplay between the exception in paragraph 8 and the general offence in paragraph 1 and about how that would affect the work of farmers and gamekeepers who must control rodents as part of their business.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked what would happen if a dog were to pursue and kill a rat in a cellar, which is underground in the terms of paragraph 8 and would appear to be outside the exception. What would happen if a farmer or gamekeeper had a dog that pursued a rat into a culvert or burrow, perhaps excavated by a larger mammal, and killed it? Would that dog owner be liable, at least in theory, to criminal prosecution because the dog had gone underground?
Obviously, one must indulge in these wild flights of fancy regarding what might happen, assuming that everyone outside the House is totally unreasonable in their approach to the law. However, in the event that a terrier went for a rat, who would prosecute?
I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman's first intervention before taking the next one.
The prosecuting authorities would handle the matter in the usual way. One problem is that the schedule assumes that the police and, by extension, the Crown Prosecution Service, will act, not simply in response to offences observed by a constable, but in response to a complaint about an alleged offence put before the police. One reason why the Bill includes a power of arrest is so that the police can follow up an allegation of an offence.
I have sought to deal with that point and others in later amendments. The issue is not about the certainty that the police will prosecute, but about the possibility that they might. To give an analogy, the gentleman in Sunderland who is being prosecuted for giving his customers what they want in terms of weights and measures has chosen the uncomfortable role of martyr. Many others would not want to go to court and risk prosecution if the law said that they could not control pests in this way. Their activities would be circumscribed by the fear of prosecution.
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the CPS always estimates how likely it is to succeed in having a charge upheld. I might add that, in many cases where we have complained, the CPS has decided that insufficient evidence is available to make a successful case. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that everyone has gone completely mad. That may apply to his arguments, but it cannot apply to the CPS. He must know that a police officer has to intervene and that the CPS must be involved. Does he seriously suggest that they will all go down the lunatic road that he is describing?
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken if he believes that the Bill requires a police officer to be on the scene of the alleged crime and to be involved in the prosecution. When dealing with criminal justice Bills, Labour Members are often chary of leaving the safety of the citizen from prosecution to the goodwill and discretion of the police officers and crown prosecutors.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is full of anomalies, of which he has identified one and will shortly identify others? It is not good enough for the Government and their supporters to say that people will not do this or that; we are here to enact criminal law. Malicious neighbours could allege an offence. The hon. Member for West Ham has a touching faith in the prosecuting authorities if he thinks that they do not bring ridiculous cases. The current case in Sunderland, and the prosecution of some people who have sought to defend themselves against burglars, fully justify our wariness of anomalies.
As I understand the hon. Member for West Ham, he is saying that the Bill would make such action a criminal offence; individuals would be breaking the law if they were to handle rats, but it was unlikely that anyone would prosecute. It is dangerous to say that a certain activity constitutes an offence, but that we hope that nobody will take an individual who commits it to court. We cannot run the country like that.
The hon. Gentleman is right. In moving these amendments, I am asking the Government why they have chosen to approach the need for rodent control—which they acknowledge exists—through the convoluted and ambiguous means of paragraph 8 of the schedule, rather than simply by including an overall exception for hunting rodents with dogs. That would make things much clearer and easier to understand, both for those affected and for the police and prosecuting authorities.
My hon. Friend has a good point, and he should pursue it. However, there is a problem in his use of the word rodent, because he lumbered squirrels in with the rest. Of course, the grey squirrel is a terrible animal, which should be hunted down and rooted out wherever it exists, but the red squirrel is altogether different; a noble and splendid animal that is not persecuted by gamekeepers. We need clarification of the squirrel policy as well as of everything else.
I bow to my hon. Friend's expert knowledge of rodents. Ministers may wish to let us into the secrets of Government squirrel policy in due course. It is partly for reasons such as those to which my hon. Friend has alluded that I have offered the Government the alternative mechanism provided in amendments Nos. 41 and 42, so that they could make a distinction between the two species of squirrel found in these islands in terms of any exception to the general offence in paragraph 1.
Yes, it is a different species. As I have explained to the Committee—I shall repeat the argument so that the hon. Member for Pendle understands—this group of amendments offers the Government alternative ways out of the hole into which they have dug themselves. They could either accept the blanket exemptions in amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 or the mechanism provided for in amendments Nos. 41 and 42, which would allow the Secretary of State to say that a particular species should be exempt from the ban on hunting with dogs. They could then bring forward a statutory instrument for the approval of Parliament to give effect to that designation.
My answer is that the Government have created this mess by proposing this daft Bill. We in the Committee are trying to minimise the damage that the Bill will undoubtedly cause if it passes into law in its present form, plagued as it is with ambiguities and uncertainties.
My final point on rodents refers to the other limb of paragraph 8, which we will be able to discuss in greater detail later. That provides that the exception shall apply only if the person who is hunting owns the land on which the rodent hunting takes places or has the permission of the person who owns that land. That raises further ambiguities. What happens on a field margin if a dog crosses into another property owner's domain, possibly a property owner whose views oppose hunting with dogs? What happens if a dog roams on to public open space? The Bill must be amended to deal with those inherent ambiguities.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. The Conservative party has traditionally supported private ownership of property. Is he suggesting that people who do not want hunting on their property should none the less be obliged to allow it to take place? I want to be sure of his argument.
No, I am certainly not making that argument. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving me an opportunity to clarify that. The civil law of trespass already provides remedies in such cases. I would not condone the action of someone who deliberately sets out to hunt across the property of another without permission. I am talking about the practical dilemmas faced by people such as farmers and gamekeepers who have to control rodents. Under the legislation, they would be faced with considerable uncertainty as to when they would be at risk of criminal prosecution for allowing their dogs to chase and kill rats.
Paragraph 8(3)(b) states:
which he had been permitted to use for that purpose by someone to whom the land belonged.
I cannot get my head around the phrase ``to whom the land belonged''. I have rats in my garden. If my dog went through my gate and out on to the road, which belongs to the county council, would I apply to the county council for permission? Can I assume the road belongs to me because I pay my rates? Do I have to apply to the council for access to a field it owns, or do I assume that I am a part-owner because I have paid my rates?
The hon. Lady makes a telling point. I cannot give her an answer. We must both look to the Government for an adequate explanation of paragraph 22, in which the answer lies. That is yet another paragraph that contains considerable uncertainty and ambiguity.
I turn briefly from rodents to rabbits. Surely, much the same argument applies to rabbits as to rodents. Members of the Committee would generally accept that rabbits cause enormous damage to crops and to the bark of young trees. Why have the Government decided not to include an exception for rabbits? I cannot understand why the damage done by rabbits is considered to be more acceptable than that done by rodents. Why is there a provision in paragraph 8 for rodent control yet no provision in the schedule for rabbit control?
Amendment No. 3 deals with mink. I know that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has strong views on the matter, and she may wish to speak later. All the evidence that I have seen indicates that, in this country, mink are vermin. Speaking personally—I am not stating my party's policy—I think that there is a strong case for treating mink as successive Governments treated coypu. That would involve a well-planned programme, including a bounty to try to eradicate the species, which is not native to these islands.
The report by Lord Burns records the damage that is done by mink. They kill domestic poultry, ducks and geese; the rise in the mink population has been linked to a decline in the population of moorhens, coots and grebes; mink have come close to eradicating colonies of some ground-nesting seabirds; and, although they are not completely responsible for the precipitate fall in the country's water vole population, the report concluded that there is no doubt that the rise in mink population has aggravated that problem.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. It is a telling fact that mink were introduced into this country to provide the rich bourgeoisie—such as the family of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—with mink coats. That shows the folly of such an introduction. Will the hon. Gentleman congratulate the Government on legislating to ban fur farming?
I would be more inclined to take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously if he had been prepared to condemn the irresponsible animal rights activists who released mink from mink farms. That allowed the mink to exterminate native birds and wild mammals, which had a very damaging effect on the local fauna.
Following yesterday's events, when Downing street shot the fox so quickly and ruthlessly, I now know why the Government are against the hunting of vermin; they think that it is much easier to shoot them.
I think that it would be better if I concentrated on mink.
The study that was submitted to the Burns inquiry by Professor Macdonald and other scientists showed that, in the Thames catchment area in 1990, mink were uncommon and water voles were found on about three quarters of the sites that they had previously occupied. However, by 1995, only five years later, there had been a rapid increase in mink numbers, along with a catastrophic decline in the water vole population. The scientists pointed out that there were no sites in that catchment area where the two species co-existed.
I accept the Burns report's conclusion that far fewer mink are killed by hunting than by shooting or trapping, but the report also found that hunting mink with hounds could have a significant impact on local mink populations. Before we outlaw mink hunting, we should reflect—as Burns advised us to do with regard to all species—on the cruelty of hunting compared with other methods of control.
In his research report that is published on the CD-Rom accompanying the Burns report, Professor Macdonald commented that:
Trapping is the main method of mink control in Britain, and is widely recommended.
He added that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recommended trapping, and stated:
Traps must be checked daily, ideally first thing in the morning. Live-caught mink must be killed, as it is illegal to release them back into the wild.
For humane killing, the relevant authorities recommend using a rifle, shot-pistol, or shotgun. However, Professor Macdonald also noted that,
in practice it is not always easy to shoot a small, moving, target within a cage, and some practitioners simply drown the animals; this is particularly cruel.
Even if live traps were inspected every day, a wild animal could be caged for up to 24 hours. Therefore, in considering the relative cruelty of different methods of control, it is necessary to weigh carefully whether hunting mink with hounds is less humane than a greater use of traps—or, possibly, snares—which involve, at best, the incarceration of wild mammals in small boxes where they become very distressed over many hours before finally being dispatched by an uncertain method. Between 400 and 1,400 mink are killed each year by hunting with hounds. On its own, that is not sufficient as a means of control, but it does contribute significantly to controlling this pest species.
The hon. Gentleman has said that hunting with hounds contributes to controlling mink, but paragraph 5.121 of the Burns report states that:
hunting does not have any significant effect on the mink population at a national or regional level.
Burns is clear on that point. Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with it?
I accept the Burns report's conclusion. The Under-Secretary should read the sentence after the one that he has quoted, which states that:
It can, however, lead to temporary reductions in the mink population in specific localities.
I think that that conclusion was largely based on the report by Professor Macdonald and his colleagues, which says that hunting with mink hounds has enabled the mink population to be brought under a measure of control in areas where they are particularly damaging pests.
If the objective is to exterminate mink, following a reduction in the population by hunting, other methods of control such as trapping will also come into play. However, the scientists and Burns himself say that it would be very difficult to entirely eradicate mink.
I have tabled amendments Nos. 41 and 42 to offer the Government an alternative to the three earlier amendments, which seek to introduce exceptions for single species. However, having tabled those two amendments, I and other colleagues received a letter from the National Gamekeepers Organisation that drew my attention to something of which I was unaware: gamekeepers' use of dogs to control other species.
The writer of the letter, Mr. Nodder, refers in particular to stoats. He says that, in upland areas of Britain, up to a quarter of the stoats that gamekeepers kill are hunted with, and caught by, dogs. He describes stoat control using dogs as an essential measure for the conservation of wild birds. Paragraph 1 of schedule 3 would ban it. Stoats are Mustelids, and so are not subject to the rodent exception in paragraph 8. Mr. Nodder points out that, in some areas, grouse management—essential to upland conservation, yet already subject to severe pressures—would cease to be economically viable if stoat control became more difficult than at present.
I hope that the Government, having heard what hon. Members say, will reflect on the all-embracing nature of the offence described in paragraph 1. There is a strong case for them to consider either amendments Nos.1 to 3, which offer exemptions for certain categories of species, or amendments Nos. 41 and 42, which propose a scheme for the designation of excepted species. If the Government are unwilling to reconsider their current approach, I fear that those rural people for whose work in pest control is essential will be exposed to ambiguity and uncertainty over their risk of criminal prosecution. They might also be deprived of the means of carrying out pest control, which is essential for the successful continuation of rural enterprises such as those mentioned in the letter from the National Gamekeepers Organisation.
I shall first deal with the question of rabbits. A friend of mine, and a member of the Labour party executive, frequently goes rabbiting and uses the rabbits to feed his dogs. When I explained to him that he would no longer be able to go rabbiting unless he took a gun, he said that, although he did shoot, he would not like to do that. He asked why he would need to take a gun. I explained that he could use the dog to flush out the rabbit, but would then have to get both dog and rabbit to sit down so that he could shoot the rabbit—or the dog, if it moved. He said, ``But that's crazy. How can I stop the dog chasing the rabbit?'' As the expression goes, ``Let the dog see the rabbit.'' My friend cannot understand why the Labour party, which he supports so strongly, wants to stop him rabbiting.
Well, fishing as well, but guns first. I told my friend that if that organisation should get its way, he would not even be able to take his gun when he went rabbiting. I understand that, on Tuesday, there was some debate about whether the LACS did have such an intention, but I have here a national petition that it has organised, asking for all guns to be banned.
My hon. Friend repeats comments that Opposition Members have made but which are not true—although one could be excused for thinking that they are, if one believes everything in the newspapers. As I understand it, the LACS does not have such a policy. It would be difficult for the league to argue for that policy, given that it recommends that foxes should be shot. How on earth can it say that foxes should be shot as a means of control yet wish to ban people from carrying guns?
I am still replying to my hon. Friend. He is assuming that the League Against Cruel Sports is logical. It is not. It is working down the line, and I am convinced that it will go for shooting next, then fishing.
I have here the petition from LACS, which asks people to return it to them at an address that is difficult to read—I think that it is in Union street, somewhere in London.
How many more people have to die before all guns are banned?
How much more wildlife will be lost before all guns are banned?
How many more tons of toxic lead shot will be spread over our countryside before all guns are banned?
So where is its logic in saying that foxes should be shot?
The hon. Lady has made some good points. Many of her colleagues refuse to accept that LACS has such an agenda. It argues that lead shot is poisoning the countryside, and people who want to abolish fishing complain that the lead weights on fishing lines get into swans, ducks and other fish. So if lead poisoning is an argument for banning guns, it is also an argument for banning fishing. The hon. Lady is therefore right to suggest that those will be the next steps.
Significant effect, thank you. The report says that hunting does not have a significant effect on the population of mink in the countryside. No, it does not. However, at least those who hunt are trying to do something about it. If they are banned from doing so, many more mink will be running around and breeding. Mink have no natural predators other than man, and unless man does something about them, they will continue to breed and to destroy much of our indigenous wildlife. That raises the question of who is responsible for ensuring that mink are eradicated.
The control of mink has in fact always been a responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, not of NRA
—nothing to do with us, guv. In response, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told me:
It is entirely at the discretion of individual landowners/occupiers to decide whether they wish to control mink on their land.
The letter goes on to say that the Ministry will ``provide advice''. In other words, it will not do anything about the problem, but it will give people leaflets about it. So who is doing something about it? The answer is nobody other than the mink packs.
East Dorset district council sent a letter to its local mink pack, stating:
Thank you for . . . helping us to control the population of mink on the Moors Valley River. It was good to see the hounds working and the excellent way you kept them under control. We will contact you again if we have further reports of mink in the future.
It appreciates the damage that is done to rivers and the effect of mink hounds.
As the hon. Lady knows, I support and endorse everything that she has said about mink. However, on waters that are keepered because they are run by, for example, fishing clubs, or on private waters where a riparian owner may fish and employ a keeper, mink will be controlled properly. On other waters, which provide the public with much pleasure, there is no keepering or control, so mink have a baleful effect on fish stocks and the river bank. Does she agree that that is a further reason why the Bill is an enemy of conservation?
I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's comments. The banning of mink hunts is unconnected to conservation. In fact, it encourages mink to reproduce and destroy many indigenous species.
On the fishing question, there is no way in which to trap mink in an estuary because its tidal waters will drown them. We have had many floods this year, so if traps had been set, they would have drowned mink caught in them. Furthermore, traps have to be checked once every 24 hours to ensure that they are freshly baited. In flood conditions, mink will not go near traps, which are impossible to examine when they are underwater. Those problems affect estuaries all year round, and rivers when they flood.
Traps are expensive to manage and control because they must be supplied with live bait. A person—I almost said a man—must inspect them every 24 hours and, the last time that I asked, they cost about £25, although they are probably more expensive now. That is what must be done to control mink, but few riparian owners are prepared to do it.
On the question of mink trapping, is my hon. Friend not contradicted by page 105 of the Burns report? The document states:
Mink do not appear to be particularly trap-shy and trapping can therefore be a relatively efficient means of control provided that the trap is well placed.
It also states:
There are no firm data on the numbers of mink killed by trapping but research shows that intensive trapping in an area can remove most of the local population.
It can work, if someone is prepared to do it, if someone is prepared to pay for it, if someone is prepared to employ a temporary keeper to manage the traps and if there is no flooding. All those factors have to be combined, so in an ideal world it could be effective. In the real world, however, it cannot be effective.
Eliminating mink hounds will cause a problem in the countryside that no one is prepared to deal with rationally. One can deal with isolated instances of mink, but there must be people who are prepared to pay for traps.
This group of amendments seeks in a general way to address the problems of gamekeepers, farmers, farm workers and pest-control contractors. I see great merit in that approach, because it will address the fear of prosecution, which the hon. Member for West Ham seems not to appreciate. If the exemption is of a general character, and qualified, if it has to be, to avoid attempts to get round the Bill's basic purpose, people can carry on their jobs. If we must rely on later amendments tabled by various members of the Committee to deal with specific anomalies, others will still not be covered and those carrying on legitimate and necessary activities will be in constant fear of prosecution, relying on the belief, ``The authorities wouldn't prosecute, would they?'' That is no basis on which somebody running a small pest control business can invest in a van or equipment to do his job. It is no basis on which a gamekeeper can hope to keep his job. A gamekeeper who finds himself in court does not stay in his job very long.
The right hon. Gentleman is labouring the point. No one in the Committee will object to sensible amendments that address serious issues, but he should not try to make a serious point by using ludicrous examples. First, as I said in an earlier intervention, and as the right hon. Gentleman must know, the Crown Prosecution Service will consider any possible prosecution carefully and always needs to believe that it can succeed. Secondly, the prosecution must have a public-interest element to it.
Like me, the hon. Gentleman is fortunate in receiving his salary from the Fees Office at the end of every month and in knowing perfectly well that he can carry on doing his job. If he were a small pest control contractor, he would not be able to afford the luxury of assuming that the CPS, which is always sensible about such matters, never takes unwise prosecutions or uses maliciously provided and false evidence to generate a prosecution that may ultimately fail and land the individual in court.
It will not do for the hon. Gentleman to say to people who are often much less well paid than us or whose job has the insecurity of a small rural business, ``I can assure you it's all right. Don't worry. Nobody will take a risky prosecution.'' Life is not like that, and some people know it. I come back to the point about the employed gamekeeper. If he lands in court too often, his employer will not want to keep him on the books. So, every day that the gamekeeper goes about his work, in fair weather or foul, he must watch for the whole time that he not only does not engage in animal cruelty, which is rightly punishable by law, but does not stray over the extraordinary boundaries of law that will be created by many provisions in the Bill.
Mr. Garnier rose—
Mr. Soames rose—
Mr. Maples rose—
One problem with the intervention of the hon. Member for West Ham is that he is relying on the prosecutor's restraint. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is particularly inappropriate in the case of hunting, because cases will be investigated and prosecuted by organisations and individuals other than the police and the CPS. Nothing in the Bill prohibits the laying of an information in the local court; nothing in the Bill prevents private prosecutions. I am sure that it is those that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.
Yes, and those who want to ensure that the Bill is enforced. I do not complain about them doing so. Indeed, over the years, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has done valuable work in rightly bringing matters to court and drawing attention to cruelty when it occurs. However, if we create a law that criminalises the genuine activity of people working in the countryside to control pests and vermin or simply to keep animal numbers at a sustainable level, we will allow prosecutions to be prompted by organisations seeking to enforce such general legislation, which adds further to the risk.
No assurance can be given in Committee on which anyone in any of the jobs to which I have referred can safely or confidently rely. Even a ministerial assurance, which would be helpful, is not good enough if the genuine fear of prosecution exists.
Surely another problem for gamekeepers or farmers is that, under the exemptions in paragraph 7, they must prove their innocence. The Bill reverses the burden of proof: the person charged must prove that their activity falls under one of the exemptions. That is an unreasonable way of loading the question. The amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), which I understand the right hon. Gentleman supports, would remove that problem and make it clear that, in some instances, such activity was not an offence under the Bill.
Absolutely; that saves me having to make that point. The general character of the exemptions and the tabling of other amendments to shift the burden of proof are all reasonable attempts to enable people to go about their work without fear of prosecution. I underline the fact that the work of such people is already covered by a great deal of law and there are many restrictions by which they have to abide—some thoroughly justified—in order to protect the public or animal welfare.
Within the last month, a gamekeeper who used poison, which is rightly illegal, was prosecuted and convicted in my constituency. That process must take place. Gamekeepers must ensure that they abide by the law all the time, but we are imposing on them what they will regard unreasonable burdens that are not consistent with doing the job properly.
We shall attempt later to deal with the anomalies that we have so far discovered. More are referred to in the letter to hon. Members from the National Gamekeepers Organisation, and more will come to light on the basis of experience when the Bill has completed its stages in the Commons. That is why it is valuable to try to achieve a more general change in the character of the Bill—so that those engaged in legitimate pursuits are fully protected.
I warmly support the right hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he was present during our sitting on Tuesday afternoon when I raised with the Minister the question of a lady from Essex, who had written to me. With farmers, she uses her lurchers to control rabbits in Maldon, and earns her living doing so. Her position would be unclear and she would be wrongly liable to criminal prosecution.
I heard that example raised and, when I got back to my office, I found a copy of the same letter waiting on my desk. The hon. Gentleman was quicker then me to read his mail that day.
Certainly in my constituency, many small businesses are involved in activities such as pest control. It is a long-established practice; the mole catcher is a well known feature of the countryside. In other areas of pest control, small businesses employ people to control pests. They do not deserve to have to live under the constant fear of prosecution from badly drafted law or legislation which, if unamended, will impinge on their legitimate activities, to which dogs are central. We must remember that such people work with animals all the time and that their best friend and constant working companion is one or more dogs, whose breed and characteristics are crucial to the work.
Many of those activities have been supported and encouraged by Governments over the years. I remember when the Government supported rabbit clearance societies in order to deal with the constant problem of rabbits in the countryside. That assistance is no longer available. Nobody will ever exterminate rabbits from the countryside or would want to do so, but the countryside cannot sustain the rabbit population that arises if there is no control. The rabbit population must be controlled, and dogs are one means of achieving that.
Squirrels have been introduced into the proceedings slightly irrelevantly. I do not know of anybody who would attempt to hunt squirrels with dogs. Not many dogs have the squirrel's tree-climbing capacity. My constituency, alas, has become one of the battlegrounds between the red and the grey squirrels. In my early days as a Member of Parliament, I never saw a grey squirrel in my constituency—only red ones. I now see both, but I point out to the hon. Member for West Ham that I have never seen the two species in the same tree at the same time. We are seeking to address the problem by selective feeding devices, using feeders that the red squirrel can use but the grey squirrel cannot. That is one delicate issue of countryside management. The Bill probably has relatively little bearing on it, as dogs are not used, but it illustrates the difficulty and delicacy of such work, and to that extent it is relevant to consideration of the use of dogs.
I welcome the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury because they would provide a broader exemption. Without them, the Bill—I do not believe that it will be enacted—would cast a shadow and pose a threat to many people engaged in legitimate work in the countryside.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly referred to the need to tackle badly drafted legislation, as he called it, and the anomalies and weaknesses that he detects in the Bill. However, in supporting the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, he is in effect seeking to introduce other weaknesses.
I agree with much of what has been said about the need to tackle the rabbit problem. My garden has been completely wiped out twice by rabbits, so I have no reason to be particularly fond of them, even if they do keep the lawn cut. Nor do I have a quarrel with what was said about rodents or mink. However, the amendments would enable those who wish to hunt animals that are set apart from hunting to find a cover. Amendments to paragraph 1 would allow people to argue that, in hunting rabbits to control them, the dogs mistakenly pursued a hare or fox while temporarily out of sight. The countryside in which such activities take place is not like a bowling green, where one can see everything that is going on. It is complex territory, full of holes, rocks and so on.
The amendments would provide a built-in excuse for hunters who wish to hunt in a way that is proscribed. They would be able to pretend that, in catching something else, they were in fact hunting rats. In a subsequent court case, their position would be relatively simple to defend. In the case of mink, they could say, ``Sorry, your honour, we set out to hunt mink but in fact we caught an otter. It was one of those things—we couldn't prevent the dogs from turning at the last moment.''
I do not underestimate the seriousness of what right hon. and hon. Members are saying about the problems caused by rodents and rabbits, but excepting such animals from the Bill would only weaken it. I know that some oppose the Bill lock, stock and barrel, but it is the will of the House to legislate for a ban, and it is our duty to make that ban operable. The amendments would prevent that.
The hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding the effect of the amendments. If amendment No. 2, for example, were accepted, paragraph 1 would state:
A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal other than a rabbit with a dog.
Someone who in practice hunted an animal that was not covered by the exception would be committing an offence, so the amendment would not cause the doubt to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
I agree that that is what the amendment is trying to achieve, but in practice it would enable someone who does not agree with the law to make the plausible excuse in court that they were hunting rabbit and did not intend to catch hare. In my district, hares and rabbits live side by side in large numbers. Someone might say that at the last moment their dog caught a hare: it went down a hole chasing mammal A, and unfortunately caught mammal B.
I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. He seems to be suggesting that people will use the amendment's proposal as a loophole and say that they were actually chasing rabbits. In the unlikely event that that is what they wanted, they could simply say, equipped with the Bill's part II exceptions and paragraph 8, which states:
It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under paragraph 1 to prove that—the conduct to which the charge relates consisted of hunting rodents
``I was hunting rodents.'' I do not see the difference.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the exception to which I referred on page 21—the hunting of rodents—is a weakness of the Bill and that he may want to return to the matter and take that exception out?
I confess that I shall again be looking carefully at that paragraph, but I am not suggesting that it should be taken out, because rodent control is important. However, it must not be used as a plausible excuse in the way that I described.
I do not think that I said that. I opened my remarks by saying that the control of rabbits in particular is desperately important. I have no direct experience of mink in my area, so I fight shy of saying anything definitive about that. I have read the literature, seen video footage and so on, but I have not experienced the matter for myself. I do not underestimate the problem of mink in some areas—particularly in connection with fisheries.
May I read to the hon. Gentleman paragraph 1? It states:
A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog.
Paragraph 8(1) says:
It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under paragraph 1 to prove that . . . the conduct to which the charge relates consisted of hunting rodents and so on. I may be being obtuse, but is not amendment No. 1 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury entirely consistent with that?
Paragraph 1 covers the entire Bill and creates an offence. Paragraph 8 says that proving that one is dealing with rodents is a defence, as are other activities under the exceptions in paragraph 7. The amendment would create an offence, then make a blanket exception to it. That is different from starting with the creation of the offence and subsequently allowing defences, as paragraph 8 reasonably does.
On mink, the hon. Member for Aylesbury quoted the comment in the Burns report that hunting mink is a temporary control in specific localities. That creates a mechanism for the renewal of the mink population to provide constant prey for hunting—a situation that might develop anyway, given the descriptions of fisheries by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and by Opposition Members. That is different from a hunt being used, in effect, to create a constant supply of mammals to destroy, as the amendments would allow.
I shall briefly comment on the point adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. She resurrected the argument that when this is all over, the League Against Cruel Sports, or another of the organisations that she mentioned, will start to campaign for the abolition of guns, fishing and so on. Of course, some people in those organisations will say that they want to do that. However, they would require a public and political consensus, which does not exist on this side of the Committee or in anything other than a tiny minority of Members of Parliament.
The speciousness of the argument rests on the fact that we would never legislate for anything on that basis. Whatever law is proposed, its opponents step forward and say, ``If you do that, you'll want to do this next week. You want to ban tobacco advertising—next year it'll be advertising booze, then make-up or chocolate, which is worse for you than cigarettes.'' I know that Oppositions use that argument, because I often did so when we were in opposition. It is irrational to attack a piece of legislation by saying that further, tougher legislation on other matters will be introduced subsequently. Such a piece of legislation exists in its own right to deal with a specific problem.
The Government introduced legislation to control the use of guns, yet the Bill encourages the use of guns in the countryside. If one goes rabbiting, one has to take a gun.
One is just as dead if one is shot by a handgun as by any other kind of gun. It is strange to control something with one piece of legislation, then introduce another piece of legislation that encourages it.
The legislation was intended to stop the use of handguns. During the passage of that Bill, it was said time and again, ``This is only the start. Next week it will be another type of gun.''
My hon. Friend may recall that, at that time, the Government took great care clearly to state that they had no intention whatever of interfering with the necessary use of guns in relation to countryside activities. Their purpose was to remove handguns from people who had no excuse for possessing them.
My right hon. Friend and I served on the Committee that considered that Bill, and I remember it well.
Throughout the debate, the argument has centred on alternatives to hunting with dogs. That is what we have been talking about, Opposition Members included. The basis of the argument is the efficacy of the type of hunting concerned. The opponents of the Bill say, ``Farmers can't shoot straight. They only half kill the fox''—or whatever animal it may be. The farmers in my area seem to be perfectly good shots.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to listen to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson)—
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at Two o'clock.