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?