Schedule 3 - Hunting with Dogs: Prohibition

Hunting Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 15th February 2001.

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Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 68, in page 21, line 3, leave out `took' and insert `was intended to take'.—[Mr. Lidington.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 67, in page 21, line 3, leave out `entirely'.

No. 69, in page 21, line 7, after `which' insert `he reasonably believed that'.No. 70, in page 21, line 8, at end insert

```, or

(c) which he had not been forbidden to use.'.''

No. 71, in page 21, line 8 at end insert

```, or

(c) which was land available for public use.'.''

No. 87, in page 21, line 19, after `he', insert `believed that he'.

No. 105, in page 21, line 20, at end insert

```, or

(c) onto which the quarry had escaped while being pursued in accordance with the conditions in this paragraph.'.''

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I welcome you back to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. I was replying to an intervention by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) who asked about the meaning of the word ``stalk''. It is used in its ordinary sense to describe a dog approaching or pursuing stealthily as it tracks the scent of a mammal. Similarly, ``flush out'' is used in its ordinary hunting sense of to drive out from cover. The Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 defines dogs being at large as not on a lead or otherwise under close control. I can inform the hon. Gentleman that that is the broad approach that we take with regard to the words ``stalk'' and ``flush out''.

Amendments Nos. 69 and 87 are further attempts to create ambiguity and so blur the force of the condition. Rather than a stalker or flusher out having to have permission from the landowner, he would satisfy the condition and so be safe from possible prosecution if he reasonably believed—or, in the case of amendment No. 87, simply believed—that he had permission from the landowner. However, that would have to be an absolute matter because one either does or does not have permission. We should not muddy the waters by creating ambiguity on this matter.

Amendment No. 70 would allow stalking and flushing out to take place on any land that the person doing the hunting had not been forbidden to use. Along with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), I think that the Committee should consider that proposition carefully. For example, if the amendment were made and I owned a field in North Warwickshire that I did not wish to be used for hunting, the only way that I could ensure that would be to get my secretary to contact every dog owner in North Warwickshire, and probably further afield, and expressly forbid them in writing to stalk or flush out in my field. That is a manifest absurdity. If I failed to do that or I advertently missed out some dog owners, those people would have the right to stalk or flush out in my field because I had not expressly forbidden them to do so.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Surely that is incorrect. The law of trespass would protect the landowner even if the Bill were to be enacted. If people do not have express or implied permission, the landowner is entitled to take whatever steps the law allows to stop them. The current situation is that he would not need the criminal law.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to our deliberations; had he been present this morning, he would have heard me deal with the point about trespass. There are inadequacies in the protection offered by the law, particularly if someone is about to go hunting on land and the landowner does not wish to allow it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

The Under Secretary chided my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) for not noticing his remarks before lunch, but when the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard to see what he said this morning, I am not sure that he will be proud of what he said. He did not deal with the question of trespass as comprehensively and unanswerably as he suggests to my hon. Friend. For example, he said that he would need evidence of many repeated visits to a piece of land to obtain an injunction. That is not necessary. One obtains an injunction if one can show a threat to breach the law or the victim's rights. I know that the Under-Secretary does not mean to be angry with my hon. Friend, but when he looks at what he said this morning, he will see that he did not deal satisfactorily with the point.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 4:36 pm, 15th February 2001

It may not have been satisfactorily dealt with as far as the hon. and learned Gentleman is concerned, but it was satisfactorily dealt with as far as I was concerned. It is always possible to go to the High Court and seek an injunction.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

We were looking at some of the issues relating to the amendments, and I was about to move on to some points arising out of the issue of trespass.

The law of trespass is available, but its inadequacy where someone is seeking to hunt on a person's land is obvious; the person would have to apply for an injunction. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is right to say that there does not necessarily have to be persistent trespass. There may well be a threat of trespass and an injunction could be sought, but it must be sought from a High Court judge.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General 4:51 pm, 15th February 2001

Not necessarily a High Court judge. Plenty of circuit and county court judges are willing and able to deal with this matter.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Certainly. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it could also be a circuit judge or a red judge. It depends on the circumstances of the case. However, an injunction must be sought before a court, which may cause difficulties, given that the hunt may be just about to trespass.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Is the Minister saying that, in the absence of the Bill, it will be necessary to criminalise that kind of trespass? If he were not introducing a Bill to ban foxhunting, would the Government introduce a Bill to criminalise the trespass of those who hunt? He seems to be saying that there is a need for the Bill now. It is not in relation to the offences created by the Bill that there is a need to criminalise that kind of trespass; it can be done now.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The hon. Gentleman is right to pull me up on that. I am not suggesting that there should be a general law of criminal trespass in relation to everyone who trespasses on another's land. That would be absurd and unnecessary. However, when we are dealing with hunting on someone's land, to which there may be a strong objection—particularly as we are passing legislation that expressly forbids certain kinds of hunting—there is a strong case for a criminal penalty in the Bill, within the limits of the fines that it imposes. That is the approach that the House voted for. We have already debated whether it should be dealt with by—

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Let me deal first with the intervention of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon and then I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

We have already discussed whether a civil mechanism will suffice to deal with breach or whether a criminal penalty is necessary. That issue has now been resolved by the Committee; indeed, it was resolved by the House when it chose this option. Therefore, there is no serious argument for not moving down this road. However, the particular circumstances of a hunt illustrate better than almost any other the difficulties that arise when one relies on civil penalties. Although the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon may not agree with the decision, in a sense the Committee has already dismissed reliance on such penalties. Hunting highlights the inadequacies of civil penalties to a far greater degree than almost any other activity.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

As the Minister said, people might have strong objections to someone hunting on such land. However, given that the person concerned would be guilty of an offence under paragraph 1 because he would be hunting, why is it necessary for him to be guilty of an offence under sub-paragraph (7)(b) as well?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing this issue because we are trying to establish whether, with certain exceptions, flushing out and stalking should be allowed. The question is whether undertaking such activities without the landowner's consent should incur merely a civil penalty, as suggested by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, or a criminal penalty, as proposed in the schedule that his hon. Friends want to amend.

I want to make some progress—

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I have given way on many occasions and, as is the tradition, I shall do so again in due course. However, I want to make progress and touch on at least some of the arguments before we discuss them at length.

If amendment No. 71 were accepted, stalking and flushing out would be allowed on any public land without need for the consent of the relevant local authority. Such land would include parks, playgrounds or other places in which the public might not want to be disturbed by those undertaking stalking or flushing out with dogs. On that basis, it is difficult to see why some penalty should not be established to deal with such matters. Indeed, I suspect that in most public parks across the country, hunting with hounds, flushing out or stalking would at least constitute a breach of a byelaw. Amendment No. 71 is not one, therefore, that the Committee ought to endorse.

Leaving the best of the amendments tabled by the official Opposition till last, I should say something about amendment No. 67, many of the problems with which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) has clearly identified. Under the Bill as drafted, any stalking or flushing out must take place entirely on land where the person carrying out that activity is entitled to hunt. Because the amendment would remove the word ``entirely'', it would not matter whether permission had been given in respect of all land over which such an activity took place, so long as some of the activity took place on land where permission had been given.

Taking that point to its logical extreme, if 1 per cent. of the stalking and flushing out took place on land where permission had been granted, but the other 99 per cent. took place on land where no permission had been granted, the condition would still be met. To put it starkly, the amendment would give the green light to trespass and it would be very difficult to apply for various civil remedies, given that stalking and flushing out would appear to have been endorsed by Parliament. The hon. Member for Newbury rightly pointed out that if someone began stalking or flushing out from their own garden—which would probably constitute less than 1 per cent. of the land in question—they could probably continue that activity on anyone else's land with relative immunity, at least in terms of criminal law.

Unfortunately, much the same objection applies to amendment No. 105, which is in the name of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). That provides that rodent hunting could take place for the purpose of rodent control on any land to which the hunted quarry had strayed.

I appreciate the motive for the amendment, but it would give rodent hunters the right to pursue rodents on to my garden, even if I did not want them to do so. It cannot be right for them to be able to do that irrespective of the wishes of the landowner. Instead of the landowner having to rush off to the civil courts to obtain a remedy for trespass, it is much better to state clearly in the Bill that the activity is not allowed.

The issue has arisen previously in the context of rodent hunting and it might be helpful if I set out the position in a little more detail, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough requested. The legal position under the Bill is that if someone is hunting rodents with a dog which strays on to land where that person is not permitted to hunt and he attempts to call the dog off, no offence is committed because there was no intent to hunt on that land. However, if that person allows the hunting to continue, an offence is committed because the person is intentionally hunting on land where he has no permission to hunt. We should not forget that those who are affected by hunting object most to the invasion of privacy that it causes. We should ensure that such hunting as the schedule allows to continue does not involve trespass.

That is the right policy; it is the responsibility of anyone hunting to ensure that he confines his activities to places where he has permission to be. Any responsible hunter would do that to ensure that the added possibility of criminal sanctions would not affect him. In addition, for a landowner whose land is being hunted on against his wishes, the possibility of ultimately securing redress in the civil courts is little consolation. A criminal offence, which the police have immediate power to deal with, is likely to ensure that the hunting in question is brought to a conclusion more quickly.

Most tellingly, there is the precedent of section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which creates the offence of aggravated trespass. Many Committee members are aware that that is one of the main weapons used against hunt saboteurs. It provides that obstructive and disruptive behaviour, which alone would not necessarily constitute a criminal offence, does so when combined with trespass. In other words, there is a clear precedent for trespass turning otherwise lawful behaviour into criminal conduct.

There is a difficulty for those who believe that it is right to have section 68 of the 1994 Act on the statute book so that a criminal penalty can be imposed when saboteurs trespass but do not want a similar provision to be imposed in legislation covering flushing out and stalking.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Why would the powers in section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 be inadequate to cover behaviour that is genuinely disruptive in the sort of circumstances to which the Under Secretary refers?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

We are dealing with the activity of flushing out and stalking. If it were not covered in the schedule, it would be left to the courts to interpret whether the activity amounted to the obstructive and destructive behaviour addressed by section 68 of the 1994 Act. We are making it clear that that activity will not be allowed under the schedule if it takes place without permission. It makes explicit a similar but not exactly the same provision as that in section 68 of the 1994 Act.

The Government remain neutral on the Bill, but we have a duty to ensure that when it reaches the statute book it is sensible and workable. I cannot advise the Committee to accept the amendments. However, a number of points have been made during our debate that I want to consider further. Those points were raised primarily by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who has apologised to me for not being present this afternoon. I am grateful to him for telling me why and he will no doubt be able to see my response in Hansard. He raised a couple of points that I wish to consider. I am not sure whether they will merit an amendment, so I cannot say whether I am likely to table one. I want to consider two aspects. The first relates to land that is ambiguously owned—where ownership cannot be clearly identified. I note that the provision in the schedule is quite wide, but I want to be sure that it covers the various options that the right hon. Gentleman suggested might arise.

Secondly, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough asked whether a person could retrospectively give consent. In other words, somebody has gone on to land and has stalked or flushed out, and the owner of the land, although likely to give permission—indeed the person thought that permission had been given—had not given it. None the less, when the owner of the land found out that the flushing out or stalking had been carried out, he had no objection to it. I shall consider that issue, because the concept of retrospective permission was raised not only by the hon. and learned Gentleman but by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who apologised for not being in his place, referred earlier to the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals dealing with an injured wild mammal. He was concerned about a diseased mammal, such as a fox, which the RSPCA wanted to take into its custody or dispose of. We shall shortly come to amendment No. 121, which deals with diseased animals. Although the right hon. Gentleman is not in his place, I can say that the Government will be neutral on that amendment. The matter raises difficult policy issues, and the Government have decided to leave it to members of the Committee to take a view. The Bill could be amended without significant damage to its effectiveness, although I shall comment on that when we come to the amendment.

I hope that hon. Members feel that the debate has raised some issues of which the Government wish to take serious account, including the three points that I have mentioned. However, none of the amendments deals with those issues seriously, at least not in a way that would be acceptable to the Government or, I suspect, on reflection, in a way that would make good law. Therefore, I ask the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), in view of my conciliatory approach at least towards the end of my contribution, to seek to withdraw the amendment and to accept that the Government listen when good arguments are made but do not listen so much when they are not so good.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

At least the Minister's sense of humour has not deserted him.

I want to deal first with a couple of the misapprehensions that have crept into some of the contributions to the debate. It has been a helpful debate, because it has enabled us to elucidate some of the issues surrounding the notion of reasonable belief in respect of stalking or flushing out on certain properties.

I want to deal first with the short speech of the hon. Member for Newbury, who drew a distinction between amendment No. 105—to which he was grudgingly prepared to allow space on the ground that it dealt with rodent control—and the other amendments, which he said were about stalking and flushing out, were purely about sport, had no motivation other than enjoyment of sport and therefore would give those engaged in a rather reprehensible pursuit far too much freedom.

I must draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to paragraph 7(3)(a), which makes it clear that for stalking and flushing out to qualify as exceptions from the offences defined in sub-paragraphs (1), (2) and (3), the motives underlying such activities must concern either conservation or pest control. If the motive were purely sporting, stalking and flushing out would not be lawful under the terms of the exceptions listed in the schedule. Paragraph 7(3)(a) states:

``The first condition is that the stalking or flushing out was undertaken...for the purpose of protecting livestock, fowl (including wild fowl), game birds or crops''.

Conservation and pest control are therefore central to that particular statutory defence.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury

I am sorry if I misled the hon. Gentleman. I thought that I said that there are three purposes to stalking and flushing out, which are indeed listed in the Bill. Certainly, gamebirds are often protected with the intention of enabling lots of them to be successfully shot; in that sense, the ultimate purpose of stalking and flushing out is undoubtedly sporting. Sub-paragraph (3)(c), which is clearly intended to enable the hunting of mammals with birds of prey, presumably relates mainly to the sport of falconry. It is therefore clear that there are sporting intentions, but I did not say that sport is the only purpose to which the provision relates, and I apologise if the hon. Gentleman felt that I implied as much. I did mention other purposes; indeed, I listed them explicitly in answer to an intervention.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Although there can be an underlying sporting motive for some of these activities, paragraph 7(3)(a) makes it clear that we are dealing with pest control and conservation. To try to separate matters in paragraph 7 from those in paragraph 8 is to describe rather more of a difference than actually exists.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

When my hon. Friend was making that point, it occurred to me that this debate is completely unreal. If someone's dog kills a rabbit, it is hardly the crime of the century. The person concerned would have to meet all the conditions to which my hon. Friend referred. Is anyone seriously going to take this bloke to court because he failed to meet the condition in sub-paragraph (7)(a), even though he has met all the other conditions? [HON. MEMBERS: ``Precisely.''] Why is the provision in the Bill, then? Talk about over-egging the pudding! It is not as if we are trying to catch an infamous mass-murderer. The argument is ludicrous, and we need to bring some common sense to this debate.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact that we are dealing with absurdly complicated, ambiguous exceptions to a general ban illustrates the mess into which proponents of a ban have got themselves. Legislation that was drafted to end organised hunting with hounds will in practice impact severely on the everyday activities of many other people in our countryside, and the authors of the schedule have given inadequate thought to how that impact might be mitigated. At no point was that more apparent than in the debate on, of all things, property rights. At times I wondered which debate I might have strayed into, because we are not discussing property rights. I was touched by the Under-Secretary's concern for the landed gentry. New Labour, old Whigs; history is beginning to turn full circle.

The Under-Secretary said that to agree to the amendments would be to give people the right to hunt across his garden. However, we are not discussing hunting because none of the amendments in the group qualifies the primary offence of hunting with hounds laid out in paragraph 1. For the purposes of debate, we are discussing a situation in which organised hunting with hounds has been banned. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said several times that if the ban were to pass into law, the packs would quickly disappear.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 5:15 pm, 15th February 2001

I am anxious that the hon. Gentleman should traduce me less. The schedule concerns banning hunting with dogs and I am using ``hunting'' in the generic form, which might include stalking and flushing out. I am not suggesting that packs of dogs will chase across my garden, but somebody might come ratting in it; one never knows.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I accept the Under-Secretary's good faith and qualification of his earlier comments. However, that reinforces my point. The amendments try to tackle the practical circumstance of somebody who seeks to comply with the schedule, but finds that the activity of stalking or flushing out brings him inadvertently into conflict with that statute. That could be either because the dog or dogs crossed a property boundary or because there had been a misunderstanding about permission to stalk or flush out across a particular piece of land.

We are not discussing property rights; we are discussing the circumstances under which it is proper, appropriate and proportionate to impose the penalties of the criminal law. As the debate has developed, I have found myself increasingly less persuaded by the Under-Secretary's argument. It is clear that aggrieved landowners have available not only the remedies of the civil law of trespass, with which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) dealt, but penalties under section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

As the Under-Secretary made clear, those penalties and powers are available where obstructive and disruptive behaviour is combined with actions amounting to trespass. If the Bill is not amended, it will extend the scope of criminal penalties to action that is not considered obstructive or disruptive under the 1994 legislation. That would be a serious extension of criminal penalties which we cannot consider lightly.

I am willing to accept some of the strictures of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough about the scope of the amendments. As I said this morning, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—through amendment No. 105—and I sought to offer a number of different ways in which the problem that we have identified might be approached. The debate has helped to clarify the most appropriate of those methods. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough is right that amendments Nos. 70, 71 or 67 might take us further than the Committee wishes to go. However, that leaves us with the problem of what to do when somebody reasonably intends to keep within the law, or reasonably believes that he is doing so.

Amendments Nos. 68 and 69 would not blow a great hole in the Bill. They would add a detail to one of the statutory defences provided by the schedule. It would still be the defendant's responsibility to show to the civil standard of proof that his conduct fell within the terms of the exception that Parliament had given to him. The onus would be on the defendant to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that his belief that he had permission to go across the land in question was reasonable. A habitual nuisance—a trespasser—would find it difficult to persuade a court that his conduct satisfied the conditions of defence proposed in my amendment.

We come back to a question that no one who has addressed the other side of the argument has explained. There is a contradiction in the absence in the schedule of any provision for the reasonable belief on the part of a defendant and the explicit provision for reasonable belief in the comparable sections of the Deer Act 1991. I remind the Committee that that Act creates specific offences in relation to hunting and pursuing deer. It provides a statutory defence to those offences

``by reason of anything done in the belief that...he would have the consent of the owner or occupier of the land''.

I have been unable to check the proceedings associated with the Deer Act 1991, but it was a consolidation Act. It is the normal practice of the House that consolidation measures enjoy support from both Government and Opposition, so my working hypothesis is that there was little—if any—party political controversy, or even debate, about its detailed measures. I do not understand why the Government, or those hon. Members who broadly support the Bill, should be so hostile to including something that has worked well and without controversy, and which had cross-party support in legislation governing the hunting of deer.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 16.

Division number 11 Adults Abused in Childhood — Schedule 3 - Hunting with Dogs: Prohibition

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 16 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 73, in page 21, line 12, after `rodents' insert `or mink'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this we may take amendment No. 74, in page 21, line 12, after `rodents' insert `or rabbits'.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As members of the Committee will know, paragraph 8 provides the statutory defence to an offence under paragraph 1 that the conduct to which the charge relates consisted of hunting rodents. Amendments Nos. 73 and 74 would add mink and rabbits respectively to that exception. There are strong arguments for adding both species to the rodent control defence, but as the arguments are slightly different, I propose to treat them briefly in sequence.

I shall deal first with mink. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is the acknowledged expert on the Committee on this subject, so she may seek to catch your eye later, Mrs. Roe. Even hon. Members who have been ardent supporters of a prohibition on hunting with dogs have been willing to accept that the mink is a voracious and dangerous pest. There is ample evidence, from the Burns committee's conclusions and from the scientific and conservationist evidence presented to the inquiry, that the mink is a predator which has depleted stocks in this country of domestic fowl, raids farm and wild fish stocks, is responsible for depredations on poultry and has a damaging impact on indigenous fauna, especially in coastal areas. Attempts to control or eradicate mink in coastal areas or islands where they might prey on ground-nesting seabirds and waders would be more difficult, if not impossible, were the Bill to proceed without amendment to allow the use of dogs for the control of mink.

To include mink in the defence in paragraph 8 would create a major exception to the general offence in paragraph 1. Organised hunting of that species alone, and of the gamekeeping activities to which I alluded earlier, would be permitted. It might be possible, if the Government were persuaded of the need to allow dogs to be used for mink control, to frame an amendment to ban organised mink hunting with packs but to allow the necessary use of dogs by gamekeepers and other conservators.

I am not wedded to the precise wording of the amendment, but there is a big gap in the schedule's arrangements for the effective control of mink. To allow such an exception, even for the organised hunting of mink with packs of hounds, would be justifiable on the grounds of the damage done by mink to livestock and wildlife. An amendment to paragraph 8 rather than to a previous part of the schedule would protect those who support a ban on hunting against the risk of undermining such principal support. If the amendment were accepted, the person concerned would have to comply with the conditions in paragraph 8, including the ban on the use of dogs below ground, and be able to show that the hunting took place

``entirely on land—

(a) which belonged...to the person doing the hunting, or

(b) which he had been permitted to use for that purpose''.

Thus there would be a safeguard because mink hunting with dogs could take place only where those owning or handling the dogs had been specifically invited by the landowner who wanted to eradicate or at least to reduce the numbers of mink on his land.

Before I leave the subject of mink for that of rabbits, I want to respond to hon. Members who said that they were worried that, if mink hunting were allowed, it would harm the return to waterways of the otter, which is beginning to repopulate after its near extinction in much of England over the past few decades. The Burns report, page 209, states that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

``makes the otter a protected animal and thereby indirectly restricts mink hunting in areas of otter habitation and prohibits their further pursuit if they take temporary refuge in an otter holt''.

That Act restricts all forms of hunting with dogs where they may disturb protected animals.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 5:30 pm, 15th February 2001

My hon. Friend should be aware that in the context of otter versus mink, the otter wins in spades. Any mink colonising an otter holt would do so only for a very limited time.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend has considerable knowledge of these matters; conservationists' submissions to the Burns inquiry showed that, where the otter was returning to English rivers, the mink population was in decline. However, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, coupled with the requirement that if mink hunting were to be legal for pest control it could take place only with the permission—in effect, the invitation—of the landowner, means that there would be sufficient legislative protection for otters, about which several hon. Members understandably expressed disquiet.

Amendment No. 74 would add rabbits to the statutory defence which in the Bill as drafted relates only to rodents. Why does the schedule distinguish between rodents and rabbits? When we talk about the use of dogs to hunt rodents we really mean rats. No one seriously thinks that farmers will use dogs deliberately to hunt mice, voles or squirrels—dogs have a limited use once a squirrel climbs a tree—although paragraph 8 may come in useful if the coypu population, which I hope has been exterminated in East Anglia, ever recovers.

Why are rabbits not included in the proposal? They do a tremendous amount of damage to arable crops and vegetables growing in open fields and immense harm to young saplings by ripping the bark from those infant trees. To any reasonable, rational farmer or landowner, rabbits are pests. Adding the word ``rabbits'' to paragraph 8 would not blow a great hole in the principles of the Bill or its intention, which, I say yet again, is to ban the organised hunting of wild mammals with dogs.

In an earlier debate, we heard about the organised pursuit of rats in a far-flung British territory overseas, but I am not aware of any organised rabbit packs in this country. I have yet to hear voices raised in anger against red-faced toffs in hard hats, and funny coloured coats, who pursue rabbits on horses behind packs of hounds in the English countryside on a Saturday afternoon.

We are talking about the right of a farmer or a gamekeeper, or a plantation owner, to control an animal species which is a real pest, and which can wreak real damage to the crops for which that man or woman is responsible. It is plain common sense that rabbits—which do as much damage as rats and are the same sort of size—should be included in a paragraph that provides an exception for pest control from the offences detailed in the schedule. The only justification for excluding rabbits is that, somehow, killing them with dogs is more cruel than other methods of control. Another argument, although I have never heard it put, is that animal welfare would be harmed if we allowed dogs to pursue and kill rabbits, in a way that it would not be if we allowed rabbits to pursue and kill rats, as is provided for in paragraph 8.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

May I clarify something for my hon. Friend and for the Parliamentary Secretary, who I know will want to reply in detail to the points? No one hunts rabbits for fun. Rabbit is very poor sport; it disappears down its hole immediately. I hunted rabbits like anything when I was younger, and doing so simply does not work. They are sporting to shoot, but they are no fun to hunt, so no one is going to hunt them for fun. Rabbits are dealt with purely because they are a pest, and they must be controlled.

I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies she will be able to confirm for my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is content with the proposed policy, because it will put at risk a cardinal act of British agricultural policy that has gone on for generations: the extermination of every living rabbit—if one can get hold of them.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It will be interesting to hear whether the Parliamentary Secretary is able to provide the Committee with information on MAFF's views about this aspect of the Bill.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

If, as indeed it must be true, hunting rabbits is no more sport than hunting rats, why does Deadline 2000, to which we must be obedient, as it is our master in this Committee, believe that rats can be hunted with dogs but rabbits cannot? What is the justification behind that? Is it because rabbits are considered by Deadline 2000 to be more cuddly than rats? Is it not the truth that rabbits are a pest to a hard-headed farmer?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is right to say that, for farmers, rabbits are pests. He is also right to draw attention to the irrationality of trying to make a distinction in the schedule between rats and rabbits. I have not heard any persuasive argument, in terms either of animal welfare or of good farming and gamekeeping practice, for applying separate legal arrangements to those two species.

Turning to other methods of rabbit control, many are shot, either by someone lamping, or after they have been flushed out by a dog, as would be possible in the specific circumstances provided for under paragraph 7. Rabbits are sometimes pursued down holes by ferrets, and that will remain lawful. Deadline 2000 presumably considers that sending a ferret down a hole after a rabbit does not involve cruelty as does sending a terrier.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I am on slightly difficult ground on this question. I should declare an interest in that I have promised my step-daughter Pattie that her pet rabbit Fudge will not be covered by any concessions. I will therefore be talking about other rabbits.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the research commissioned by the RSPCA as part of the Burns report, based on work carried out by David Macdonald of Oxford university, on the potential contribution of foxes through their predation of rabbits? The final report appears to have overlooked that work. It concluded that there was a case for a plausible cost-benefit analysis which would reveal that killing foxes was counter-productive for farmers who were concerned about mammalian herbivores causing crop damage. It was estimated that, given that half of the fox diet is rabbit, each fox may prevent between £26 and £145 worth of damage a year overall, and that, due to growth of the rabbit population, that would have the knock-on effect of preventing damage worth between £49 and £608 per fox a year. In addition, a follow-up study by Roger Trout and colleagues, which was written up in the ``Journal of Zoology'', pointed out that the total saving to farmers may be in the region of £100 million a year. The concession that the hon. Gentleman seeks may occur in nature—if we allow it to take its course.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

We should be breeding foxes.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is interesting that we now know the new test that may lie behind the Deadline 2000 motives: legislation must now pass not just the Ewan test but the Fudge test before it can be debated in Parliament. I say in all seriousness to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) that if a fox got hold of Fudge or any other domestic pet—I would not wish that on any family—it might change a few minds about the attractiveness of the fox, which is a determined and skilful killer.

The hon. Gentleman argued that it is in farmers' interests to allow foxes to flourish, so that they keep down the rabbit population, and that scrapping the hunting of rabbits would allow the natural balance to reassert itself. Apart from the fact that his argument could apply equally to rats—I would not say that the hunting of rats should be banned because natural predators will surely keep their numbers down—my fundamental objection to his point is that it is up to the farmers, gamekeepers or foresters to make a cost-benefit analysis of their own business and to decide what sort of vermin control they need to ensure that their business flourishes.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I thought that the argument of the Bill's promoters was that organised hunts kill such a small proportion of foxes that getting rid of such hunts would make no appreciable difference to overall pest control. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South would get rid of organised hunts, but would still have the foxes. So what is his argument?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Consistency is not something that we expect from those who argue in support of a ban.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

The answer is that the hunters—the predators—would organise themselves with greater competence and cause less damage to the countryside than organised hunts.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is up to farmers and landowners to decide how many rabbits they need to rid from their property and what method they should use, which they should be entitled to use, subject of course to normal animal welfare legislation, such as the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I do not want to make a cheap point, but does the hon. Gentleman's general attack on all those who favour a ban for lacking consistency apply also to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My right hon. Friend is entirely consistent in her views and, sadly, she has been consistently wrong on this subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said on Second Reading, it is the one issue on which our right hon. Friend has fallen victim to political correctness.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

At least one knows that the asteroid is selective about whom it strikes.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

It may be of assistance to the Minister to learn, although he will find out shortly, as doubtless he will receive an invitation to lunch or dinner with our right hon. Friend, that fox pate will be on the menu—

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

I cannot wait to hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman is about to say.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

I am sure that the Minister will receive, in the usual way, a telephone call from our right hon. Friend inviting him to lunch or dinner. If he accepts, he will see that she has not only hunting scenes on her curtains, as she confessed on Second Reading of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), but hunt maps on her wall. She did not confess to the latter, but I found out. I cannot believe that they are a simple decoration. They may have some useful purpose.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. Whether my right hon. Friend will be so grateful, I am not so certain.

The alternative methods of rabbit control available include lamping, stalking and flushing out as provided in paragraph 7, shooting without the use of a dog, flushing out or killing a rabbit down a hole by a ferret, netting rabbits and dispatching them, or even gassing them. I understand that Railtrack's contractors use Cymag gas to eradicate rabbit colonies that live alongside railway lines. That involves the use of sodium cyanide. It is difficult to argue with any conviction that to allow a rabbit to be pursued and killed by a lurcher or another dog is somehow intrinsically more cruel than any of those alternative methods of control that will continue to be lawful.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I am interested in the fact about Railtrack; I would like to follow that up. I am sure that it could do with the advantageous publicity from people knowing that it is exterminating furry objects alongside the railway line. The hon. Gentleman's argument is nonsense because one would be a maniac to let one's dog—a lurcher or otherwise—run alongside railway tracks hunting rabbits. So the rabbits in that case should be safe. It appears that Railtrack is no more careful in preserving rabbits than it is in preserving passengers.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman inadvertently puts his finger on the point on which I wish to conclude: there are a great number of available methods for controlling such pests. The method chosen by an individual, farmer, gamekeeper or other person will depend on the type of landscape in which that person is operating. It will depend on the terrain, on the season, on the time of day that the rabbits are hunted. I have not yet heard any persuasive argument that the use of dogs to pursue and kill rabbits is evil or cruel. Everyone in this Committee acknowledges that rabbits are vermin and a pest. Such control should not therefore be subject to criminal penalties that are not to be applied to other methods of rabbit control, or in a way that distinguishes the rabbit from the rat, which is not justified by the verminous nuisance that both species cause to farmers and others.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Unlike the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I am wedded to amendment No. 73. I am in favour of anything that can bring mink under control—even if in this Bill it is limited. What has the mink done to become such a protected species? Why should we not allow any hunting of mink? Mink take mammals, birds, fish. They attack cats, and even small dogs, and guinea pigs. They will attack virtually anything.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

It would definitely attack Fudge. The mink that were let out in my part of the world attacked pet rabbits and guinea pigs.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

The hon. Lady asked what the mink has done. The mink is a furry animal and, in that sense, unfortunately, seems to be preferred over any other animal that it might chase. Insofar as one may apply such a word to an animal that cannot have a moral content, it is very nasty indeed. It does things to other animals that most of us would prefer it did not. It would be much better to get rid of the mink, which is not indigenous to this country.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman says. If those in Deadline 2000 want to cuddle a cuddly animal, I offer them the mink. I cannot think of anything nicer for them to cuddle. It looks beautiful as a fur collar, although I understand that what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) is wearing is not mink.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The hon. Lady is the expert and I am seeking information; the briefing notes that I have read have not explained the following point. Those who support the Bill say that mink hunts do not kill many mink—there are so few hunts that they are not effective as pest control. The hon. Lady has made some good speeches on the matter and I have read how expensive the traps are, that they must be attended every day and that that is quite difficult. Will she please explain to me, therefore, who is killing mink at the moment? What is happening on the ground?

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 6:00 pm, 15th February 2001

There are few mink packs at the moment. I have a letter from gamekeepers on the River Avon saying that they use the services of the mink hunts and would positively consider using them in future. They only wish that there were more of them to use. Certainly in my part of the world, where mink do enormous damage, I am asked where the nearest mink pack is.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair.]

I was just getting into my stride when I was interrupted by Jimmy the cat who had just gone out for the night.

Mink are the main predators of the water vole. When we look at the control of animals and the environment, we must look at how we protect our indigenous species. If we do nothing to control mink, some of our indigenous species will disappear. It is no good anyone in Deadline 2000 saying that the water vole will be all right if we let mink run rampant. Of course it will not. The mink is a nasty, vicious creature and it has no natural enemies. In fact, Deadline 2000 is not its enemy but its friend. It encourages the mink and wants it to continue to breed.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 6:15 pm, 15th February 2001

We are following the hon. Lady's remarks with great care; we know of her great knowledge of the subject. Deadline 2000 is not necessarily a friend of the mink, but as with many of its arguments, it is driven on the subject of mink by pure ignorance. It knows nothing about the mink or about the harm that it does to indigenous species. If it did, it would not grant it exemptions.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. If Deadline 2000 read the scientific research into the mink and the damage that it does, it would not say that it wanted to protect the mink. What has the mink done to deserve protection? I cannot see any reason for protecting it. Why cannot it be classed as a rodent, which it is?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Is the thinking behind Deadline 2000's viewpoint that mink hunting cannot be allowed to carry on because some people enjoy it and it is a sport? Does Deadline 2000 accept that mink are a complete pest that no one wants, but feel that they should be eradicated by other means? The hon. Lady has argued many times that that is not possible and that hunting is the most effective means of dealing with them—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. There is a rather lively and obtrusive debate going on in the Public Gallery. If people there wish to carry on conversations, I should be grateful if they did so outside the Room.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Far be it from me to get inside the heads of Deadline 2000 supporters. I cannot think of a more uncomfortable place to be. I have no idea how they think or how they can argue that a Bill such as this aims to protect the environment, the countryside and animals. It does not. It will destroy animals, birds and fish.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments. Mink hunting takes place on or near riverbanks. It may damage riverbanks and vole habitats and prevent the recolonisation of river habitats. How does she deal with that argument?

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Mink cannot sink. The river is swept twice; if mink are seen, the hunt goes up the riverbank once, or twice at the most, and then leaves it undisturbed. Whatever the activity on riverbanks, there will be some disturbance. The proposed alternative is the use of cages, which would disturb the area every 24 hours. There will be no alternative in law to the use of cages, yet such use disturbs the riverbank much more than going up the middle of the river, moving the mink, and then shooting them or setting dogs on them. That is a far better way in which to deal with mink than tramping in and out of the area all the time checking on cages every few hundred yards along the river.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I am sure that my hon. Friend did not mean to talk about mink as a protected species, which of course they are not. She has partially answered the question by making it clear that the number of mink killed with dogs is very small. No one would argue against the need to control mink, but how many does she assess are caught and killed by dogs as opposed to traps? If human beings—venal individuals—had not imported mink into this country in order to farm the fur, there would not be a problem. We have created the problem, so a little mea culpa might be in order.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

On that last point, if it were not for the idiots who released mink in my area, we would not have the problem of 80 mink still running free and causing trouble. My hon. Friend talks of people doing things 20, 30 or 40 years ago, but others are doing things now, fully aware of the consequences of releasing thousands of mink.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I should come back on that point because my hon. Friend would want me to say that releasing mink into the wild is ridiculous, absurd and completely counter-productive. Anyone who does so has little regard for wildlife—although it is noticeable that many of the mink that are released hang around the mink farms and are relatively easily recaptured. My hon. Friend will admit, however, that the vast majority of now feral mink in this country have not been released in recent months but have escaped from mink farms over many decades.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Absolutely; I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He asks how many mink are killed by mink packs. Given that there are only a few mink packs, that they sweep the rivers only in the season, and that they do so only twice in order to protect the riverbanks, they do rather well in attacking and getting the mink. They may not kill a vast number, but at least they keep the population down—during the season by about 90 or a 100. At least that stops the mink breeding, which is a reasonable job.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

To help the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for West Ham, paragraph 10 on page 8 of the Burns report states:

``The 20 minkhound packs kill somewhere between 400-1,400 mink a season.''

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The mink packs do a good job and to say that we cannot hunt mink with dogs is an absolute nonsense.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

If my hon. Friend turns to paragraph 5.117 on page 106 of the Burns report, she will see that the report concludes:

``It is clear that the contribution made by mink hunts to the control of mink populations nationally is insignificant. The numbers killed are far too low to make any impact on population numbers, especially given the high fecundity of mink.''

However, locally, mink hunts may well have some impact. We are dealing with the national issue of mink, whereas my hon. Friend is pinpointing a local issue.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The report says also:

``Hunting can be helpful in providing a free service to farmers and others that identifies where mink are located, enabling them to target trapping efforts more effectively.''

So dogs can be used to enable farmers to trap more effectively. I agree that, in the scheme of things, a relatively small number of mink are involved—perhaps 20,000 or so run around the islands off the coast of Scotland—but it cannot be right for the Bill to prohibit such control. The point was made earlier that because foxes attack and kill rabbits, one should leave rabbits alone and let nature take its course. Following that argument, one should also leave mink alone—yet nothing takes its course and they just keep reproducing. The cost of putting out traps to eradicate mink in just one part of the country could amount to £30 million to £40 million. If we do nothing, but prevent those who are doing something from doing so, we will have more mink and invasive species generally.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I just do not recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints. The conclusions are there in the Burns report. She referred to the inordinate cost of baiting traps; it is clear from contract study no. 5 conducted by the people at Heslington and the University of York that mink can be caught in unbaited traps. I do not know why my hon. Friend persists in going over old ground that was thoroughly dealt with earlier.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that question. Other animals can be caught in unbaited traps but the law states that one has to check every 24 hours whether an animal has been caught. If the law says that, that is what one has to do. My hon. Friend's argument does not stand up.

It has been said that foxes eliminate rabbits if one allows things to take their course, but no animal eliminates mink. People may say, ``Ah well, just let it be—perhaps someone will come along and put some traps down,'' but who? I had a letter from somebody who was anti-hunting. He wrote that there were thousands of mink traps around the country, all ready to catch mink. I wrote back and asked the simple question, ``Where?'' That was about two months ago—I am still waiting for the reply. I am sure that the traps do not exist. No one is doing anything about the problem at all.

We talk about rodent control, but we are protecting rats. It was announced today that we are becoming overrun with rats. There has been much talk about the increase in rats—partly because of the floods, they are swimming around and getting into places where they have not been before. Yet here we are worrying about the welfare of rats. It does not make any sense.

I have a good friend who goes rabbiting. He has a dog that is trained to rabbit—it lives outside in a kennel with a run and it does not go into the run. He takes it out only to rabbit. He says to me, ``If I can't take the dog out to rabbit, how can I exercise it? That is all he knows and all he has been bred for? What's going to happen? Have I got to put him down?'' What will happen to dogs that have been trained for hunting? Who will have them? It is nonsense to say that the RSPCA will have them, because it is already inundated with dogs and other animals and cannot cope.

My friend said, ``The only answer for me is to shoot my dog.'' [Hon. Members: ``Ah.''] Hon. Members may say ``Ah'', but that man feels very angry. He is an ordinary working-class member of the Labour party, who takes his dog out rabbiting to find food for him and the dog. That saves him from having to pay for the expensive and rubbishy tinned food on the shelves in shops and gives him a nice bit of rabbit instead.

What will happen when we put tight controls on hunting for rabbits? Will we return to the days when myxomatosis was needed to eliminate a vast number of rabbits? Unless we stop the Bill's nonsense about mink, rats and rabbits, we face being overrun by all three. At the end of the day, it is no good the Minister saying to us that that is what Deadline 2000 wants. I say, ``Blow Deadline 2000.'' Let us use common sense for a change.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 6:30 pm, 15th February 2001

In the weeks that the Bill has been in Committee, the debates have been extremely interesting and, by and large, good natured and responsible, given the contentious nature of what we are debating. However, none of us has received a greater shock than many of us did this afternoon, when the hon. Member for Lewisham, East told us that she was wearing her pussy round her neck. [Laughter.] That came as a terrible shock to me, and I want to know what her cat did so wrong that it ended up there.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Labour, Lewisham East

I have two cats, called Jimmy and Joe. I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that both are alive and well. Jimmy is alive and kicking, although he has only three legs because one was amputated as a result of a tumour. They are 14 years old tomorrow, and I am sure that the Committee would like to wish them many happy returns—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. The hon. Gentleman need not respond.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

The hon. Lady can be assured that cats hunt better as a pair, even on seven legs. I am sure that the four-legged one will keep up with the three-legged one.

Before dealing with amendment No. 74, I want to support the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme by urging the Committee to pay attention to what she says. She is extremely knowledgeable and devoted to the ways of the river and the water, which she has known a great deal about for years. I remember on entering the House of Commons years ago an order on mink, and the hon. Lady was the only Member who could talk about it with any knowledge. I urge the Minister to pay attention to what she says, however inconvenient that may be, because what she says is true.

The Minister asked a perfectly fair question: what damage is done to a riverbank by mink hounds? A mink hound's appearance on the riverbank is transient. It will be there for minutes and do minuscule damage. Mink live there the whole time and do enormous damage. To give the hon. Gentleman an example, a farmer was killed in my constituency last year, when a tractor ploughing a field rolled over in a badger sett. We are not necessarily debating badgers today, but they do enormous damage to the margins of fields when they make their setts. They undermine the fields and can cause huge holes. As a result, people regularly have bad falls when they are out riding. Those subjects should not be dismissed. What the hon. Lady says about mink is true.

I understand that the hon. Member for West Ham, most honourably, feels very strongly about the farming of mink. I agree with him about that, but this is a different matter. These animals have escaped into the wild and are deeply destructive. If mink ate cormorants, I would write them a good report, but they do not, because as the Minister knows, cormorants are crafty swine and nest in trees, so the mink cannot get at them. A wise Conservative Government banned the shooting of cormorants, with the result that every fish farm and trout fishery in the land is infested with these ghastly brutes—the insolent beasts that I saw flying past here this very morning. They are all over the place.

The point that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme made is very small beer. I have been out with mink hounds on many occasions, but I have no idea how many there are in the country. They kill an insignificant number of mink compared with those that have to be killed by shooting or trapping. Much more damage is done to a riverbank by putting a trap in it and a man coming up every day to inspect it by removing all the undergrowth, or indeed by my fellow anglers.

I am an angler. I do not do much coarse fishing, which involves sitting in one place at a time; I fish for salmon and trout, and that involves moving down the river, and walking all the time. I look at the banks of the rivers on which I fish. By the end of the season, there are great trampled paths all the way down the river where people have been fishing. It is all part of river life. If people fish, that is what happens. The mink living in the bank cause damage to the bank, but it is natural damage and it is expected. Otters damage riverbanks, but who cares? We all love otters.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

The otter used to be hunted.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

It is no longer hunted. It is now quite rightly a protected animal.

The mink is a highly destructive animal. It eats wildfowl, it destroys the riverbanks and is a thorough nuisance. It causes considerable damage to fisheries and to the general good order of a river. To prevent it from being dealt with in this way is a cardinal act of foolishness. I am not being impertinent to the Minister, but it is a very silly thing to do, and it will not help. Everyone in the countryside who takes an interest in these matters knows that what is proposed is absolutely absurd.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen some of today's announcements about the Governments' plans to tighten up the asylum rules, but we now seem to be approaching the curious position in which human beings who have no basis to be in this country will be treated in a much tougher way than these animals, which are not part of our flora and fauna, but damage it. It is difficult to understand why the Government seem to be so tough on people whom they consider would not contribute to our society, but very untough about animals which are manifestly undermining the animal society.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point: it is a matter of pure ignorance. How would those in a party that is based in Islington, whose thoughts are entirely of the town, have any clue about what the proposal means to people who live in and manage the countryside? They do not have clue. How otherwise could ferreting be allowed to continue? Has anyone ever seen what a ferret does to a rabbit? It is absolutely appalling. I love ferreting—one stands and watches the rabbit bolt and then one shoots the rabbit. It is a terrific sport, but if the ferret gets hold of the rabbit, the welfare of the rabbit is seriously compromised. Why do the Government do nothing about it? They do nothing because someone will have said, ``Oh God, we can't do that. There are a lot of fellows up in the north country with flat hats, good working-class chaps who love their ferrets and their dogs.'' They are quite right; there are thousands of them. Ferrets are used to help destroy and to keep the countryside free of an agricultural pest—the rabbit.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal was a distinguished Minister of Agriculture. My father was Minister of Agriculture before him. I remember very clearly when my father was Minister of Agriculture in the 1960s that the bounty for rabbits was 6p a tail. People were paid for killing the little sods— [Interruption.]—I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara. I withdraw the word ``sod'' and insert the word ``swine''. Now people no longer get paid for it. However, any farmer with an infestation of rabbits would be pleased to have Harry Soames with a .22 rifle and a good dog for the evening to clear them up. It is absolute madness that the Government do not understand the matter.

I appreciate that the Minister listens, but I want him to do something about it. I want to tell him a story of the countryside, which is very important. I assume that the members of the Committee are interested in the environment and conservation—I know that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme is truly interested in those issues. If a person has a grouse moor and keeps the ground as free of vermin as possible in order to encourage grouse, thereby providing employment in keepering and ancillary work in places where there is no other employment, and if rabbits are allowed to get out of control in the low ground, they will attract foxes, which can be dealt with quite easily, and stoats, which are harder to deal with. Stoats are attracted by the rabbits, but when they have dealt with the rabbits, they will move on to the grouse. That starts a cycle: inadequate keepering leads to too many rabbits, the rabbits attract stoats and the stoats invade the grouse nests and eat the grouse chicks. I have seen it happen often.

The Game Conservancy—I declare an interest as a trustee of the Game Conservancy, whose work is admired across the UK and is regarded as totally impartial and above reproach—has demonstrated that in such circumstances it is absolutely essential to kill the rabbits in order to keep the stoats away. Tidying up the stoats gives the grouse a reasonable chance, apart from the hen harriers, the peregrine falcons, the golden eagles and the rest. By and large, however, the grouse has a better chance than it would otherwise.

I have described the circle of conservation. While the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was bringing the Minister up to date on his way back from the Division, I mentioned to him—my right hon. Friend would confirm this were he present—that, to MAFF, the rabbit is a prime enemy. Rabbits do terrible damage to agricultural crops, trees and the general environment. I have seen ground destroyed by rabbits.

From that rabbit story, I exonerate Fudge, the magnificent bunny that is the property of Hattie Hitchcock, the step-daughter of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. I am sure that Fudge is an admirable rabbit in every way, but he is a house rabbit, a respectable garden rabbit; he is not roaming around eating the Duke of Buccleugh's saplings, or indeed the municipal grass in the borough of Islington. He is in a lovely, caring, warm home in Nottingham, South—the lucky, spoiled beast. I bet he has lovely long ears, a lovely silky coat and is an absolutely charming rabbit, but his country cousin is not the same sort of thing at all. He is an awful rough thing like the hon. Member for West Ham. He has many of those same qualities, which make him an altogether endearing, but very dangerous animal—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne 6:45 pm, 15th February 2001

Order. The hon. Gentleman might consider withdrawing that remark.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Mr. O'Hara, you know that I love the hon. Gentleman. Nothing that I say to him is intended to do anything other than pull his sweet tail.

Rabbits are a nuisance; they are absolutely intolerable. The Government know not what they do as their proposals seem to be going against the entire doctrine of the Ministry of Agriculture for the past 50 years. The rabbit explosion that took place after the war was so great that myxomatosis was brought from Australia to kill them. Myxomatosis is a horrible disease. The rabbit suffers dreadfully. It is very sick and looks absolutely ghastly and then it dies. It is extremely vulnerable and gets run over on the roads. It is a disgusting thing. Whenever I see a myxo rabbit I hit it on the head with a stick. It is pathetic. So awful is the damage that rabbits do that a disease had to be imported to deal with them.

Rabbit control falls into a number of different and entirely legal means. One can lamp at night. One gets a rabbit in the light, sees its eyes and shoots it. One knocks it over with a .22. One can flush with ferrets. One puts a ferret into a rabbit burrow and nets the other exits. A good ferret, preferably a female, because as ever the female is more deadly than the male, will push the rabbits out into the nets. If they get out of the nets one can shoot them or a lurcher will run and catch them.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I both received a letter from a lady in Essex who runs her lurchers as a service to local farmers to clear the rabbit population. She does not do it for sport. She does it as a service. She will be lucky if she is not had for committing an offence. The Minister says that it is not intended to catch people like that, but it will.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Just so we are clear: if the lady in Essex intends to hunt rabbits with her lurchers, she will certainly be caught by the Bill.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Exactly. She is providing a service to the local farmers. She takes her lurchers out on to the farms. She is not hunting them in the conventional sense. She takes them out to walk out with people with guns who will shoot and if they miss the lurchers will roll the rabbits over. That is not hunting.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

What will happen if she is banned and she takes her dogs out for a walk? She knows that they will chase rabbits because that is what they are trained to do. How will she prevent them from running after rabbits and how will she avoid being accused of knowingly taking them for a walk?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

I listened with amazement to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) whose terrier is so admirably trained in these matters. A lurcher does not have to be trained to course a hare or a rabbit. It will just do it naturally. When a pointer is taken out for the first time in its life and it smells game, it will come up to the point immediately. All one has to do with a pointer is stop it running after game when it moves and stand it still so that the spoilt red-faced toffs behind it with guns will be able to deal with the game in a sporting manner. That is nature; you cannot stop lurchers behaving like that, so they will have to be kept on leads. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Newbury, who represents the lurcher capital of the western world, is deeply unpopular with lurcher owners in his constituency

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying—

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Only down the M4. There are approximately 113,000 lurcher owners in the United Kingdom and that does not include dogs that are kept as pets. I have many friends who keep lurchers, which are charming animals. The Parliamentary Secretary, who is a tremendous dog fancier, will know that lurchers are the most beautiful and elegant dogs. They are absolutely wonderful. However, a lurcher—even one that has led a spoilt, indolent life, like the hon. Member for West Ham, always pampered and surrounded by goodies and luxuries—that is taken out for a walk on a cold, wet, day will, when faced with a rabbit, be off like a lamplighter after it, because that is its nature. Do we really intend to charge the lurcher's owner? The Minister will say no; but he wants to charge the lady from Essex because she is setting out to hunt. She is hunting no more than the man who goes ferreting, who bolts a rabbit and whose lurcher goes for it. He is hunting no more than the lady in Essex, nor the tens of thousands—

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. The hon. Gentleman is always extremely entertaining, but we have had more than one discussion about what lurchers do naturally. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject of the amendment is rodent control.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara. I was doing it naturally. I am merely trying to show that bringing rabbits into the law is not as simple as it seems. It is clear that the Committee is swayed by what I said, and we will have to change rodent control in the schedule because rabbits are not rodents. I propose a fundamental change to the Bill, but that may be too much for the Government to follow.

Ferreting is an effective way to control rabbits, and many people do it. I do not know how many members of the Committee had the pleasure of reading an article in the excellent review section of The Sunday Telegraph last weekend about those who follow hunts on foot. They are people from every walk of life, who do not ride, and have no part in the field; they go hunting because they love it. At the end of a good day's hunting, they go ferreting. It was an interesting and fascinating article and I highly recommend it to hon. Members.

The Minister wants to take away from tens of thousands of people the ability to control vermin in the countryside, which they do legitimately, providing an excellent service in keeping the countryside clean. The hon. Member for West Ham got excited about cyanide-gassing by Railtrack contractors to eradicate rabbit populations, which often thrive alongside railway lines. Gassing is a horrible thing; I hate it and I have never done it as I can imagine how vile it must be, but it has to be done because of the damage that rabbits do to railway embankments—

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There will be a clear and present danger to safety on the railways if work is not done to control rabbits. Rabbits are unequivocally a pest in the countryside and along the railways.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

That is correct. It is not as if Railtrack does not have enough problems. Collapsing embankments from the damage done by rabbits is a serious matter. If they collapse, further inconvenience will be caused to the travelling public. None of us likes that. It has nothing to do with what my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said about Railtrack losing brownie points because it is gassing small Fudge look-alikes. Railtrack is gassing rabbits for reasons of proper order and safety. It has to do it.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I would have thought that there was far more danger to the travelling public through cracked rails and faulty junctions than through rabbits. However, that is another matter. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is no alternative? We keep being told that, if the ban is passed and dogs cannot hunt rabbits, alternative methods will be used that are pretty unpleasant. However, I would not have thought that Railtrack was in a position to use dogs along the side of railways. Does he support the gassing of rabbits? He has said that he does not like it, so what are the alternatives to gassing rabbits along the railway embankment?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

There are no alternatives. Railtrack has to use gas. It is essential for Railtrack to kill rabbits, which is so repugnant to the hon. Gentleman, in order to keep embankments in reasonable order. Rabbits inflict frightful damage.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

The rabbits are gassed to protect not only embankments from collapse, but Railtrack from being sued by owners of the farmland either side of the railway. I have had representations from farmers in Leicestershire who see their grain crops decimated by the activities of rabbits that are breeding within the embankments and then coming up to feed on the cornfields either side of the railways. Railtrack is in danger of having to pay huge sums in compensation for damage to crops. It is a question not just of the breakdown of the land, but of the degradation of crops themselves.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

It is. That is the point. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the fact that failure to control pests, as in the case cited by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, can lead to a notice being served by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under sections 98 and 99 of the Agriculture Act 1947. The notice served can require any person having the responsibility to do so to take, destroy or prevent the escape of certain species on his land—rabbits, hares, rats, mice, other rodents, deer, foxes, moles and non-protected birds. Failure to comply with the notice may result in the pest being destroyed by the Ministry at the occupier's expense.

The Committee will not pay any attention to any representations that are made by Opposition Members, however sensible, over the question of dealing with rabbits because of the Labour party's fundamental lack of understanding of anything to do with the issue. Labour Members simply do not get it.

I conclude by reading what Burns said about mink. Paragraph 43 of the report says:

``Mink can cause localised damage to poultry, gamebirds, fishing and wildlife interests.''

Paragraph 5.105 says:

``Mink can be very troublesome in the case of ground-nesting seabirds, especially in Scotland and on small islands. Their activities, including surplus killing, have been linked to almost complete breeding failure amongst some colonies of terns and gulls, including some rare species.''

Paragraph 5.106 says:

``Mink have been held to be responsible for a major decline in water vole numbers''

The National Gamekeepers Organisation represents professionals who are highly skilled in the job that they do, which is important not only to them, but to the people who employ them. They really know what they are doing. However, their opinions are swept aside as if they are worth nothing. The NGO said to the Burns inquiry:

``Many keepers have been unlucky enough to experience the wanton carnage that a single mink can do to penned gamebirds in one night. Kills of over 100 birds are not uncommon. Nor should we forget the unseen damage that mink also inflict on wild gamebirds and ducks.

There is no doubt that mink have to be controlled. Until their spread got out of hand, UK Government policy was for eradication. Even today, eradication in the Hebrides is regarded as essential to wild life conservation. Gamekeepers regard mink on their patch as seriously as they regard foxes. They are universally trapped and shot. Dogs are often used by gamekeepers to hunt them or flush them from cover or from underground so that they can be shot.''

It is not a sweet, charming, cuddly little person, but a remarkable killing machine. It is a phenomenal animal and does terrible damage. The Government should know that, if they do not accept the argument on rabbits, they will stand condemned of a total lack of understanding and appreciation of the realities, which are a long way from an overheated Committee Room in the Palace of Westminster in the heart of the British political village. It is totally divorced from the realities of the countryside and what goes on.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 7:00 pm, 15th February 2001

I need to restate a few points because of the Government's apparent unwillingness to think about the exclusions.

We need to remember that the debate is about not whether these animals are killed, but how they are killed. Everyone seems to accept that they are pests, certainly in certain circumstances. Rabbit and mink are clearly in that category. We are not asking whether they should be dispatched or not, but what the most effective way to dispatch them is in paying regard to animal welfare.

Members will remember that Lord Burns was equivocal about hunting with dogs. More important, however, he did not say that controlling the species was necessarily more cruel than the alternatives. He suggested that, in areas such as upland Wales, killing a fox with dogs was perhaps acceptable as an effective means of control. If it is potentially acceptable to control the fox population with dogs, in principle, there is no reason to think that the same logic does not apply to killing a rabbit or mink in that way.

It is necessary to go back to the fundamental reason why we are all here: animal welfare. The question that one must answer in order to introduce the prohibition is whether, on the basis of the evidence that we have, the welfare of those animals would necessarily be improved as a result of a ban on hunting with dogs? Given that the Government themselves sponsored the Burns report—by and large, we have all agreed that it is quite an authoritative work—it is incumbent on the Minster to explain why he feels that rabbits and mink, which are in the same category as rats and other rodents, should have special status and be protected from being killed with dogs.

There is no point my repeating all the reasons why killing a rabbit or mink with dogs is no more cruel than the alternatives. We should listen to all the arguments and take into account the fact that rabbits and mink are smaller than foxes. As Burns thought that foxes might not be killed in an unreasonably cruel way with dogs, we might conclude that it was less cruel still to kill a rabbit or mink with a dog.

What is the rationale is for giving rabbits and mink a special status, which rodents do not enjoy? It seems to me that including rabbits and mink in another category, such as the rodent category, would not be what Deadline 2000 is trying to achieve, especially as the Minister and others accept that mink is a pernicious species on our riverbanks and that previous Governments sought to provide a cash incentive to reduce the rabbit population.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I completely agree with the hon. Member, but he has referred to two categories. One includes rats, which can be hunted and killed with dogs and the other includes mink and rabbits, which cannot. However, there is another distinction between mink and rabbits. Under paragraph 7, rabbits can be flushed out by a dog and then shot or have their necks wrung, but mink are protected even from that. So there are three distinctions. All these animals are pests, if not vermin, so what is the moral or practical justification for those distinctions?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. He has given us a completely accurate description of the present condition of the Bill.

Setting aside the wider arguments for consideration on Report and on Third Reading, I would suggest to the Minister that—perhaps as a result of the lack of depth in our exchanges—we have now created three categories specifically in respect of rabbits and mink. Perhaps, on reflection, the Minister might accept that rabbits, mink and rodents could reasonably be managed in the same way and that to do so would not necessarily compromise the spirit of the Bill. After all, the Bill was not intended to make it difficult to control those species, which are universally regarded as vermin.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

I will be as brief as possible. I begin by taking up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex made in relation to the brief title of the paragraph. If the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury is to make complete sense, the words ``rodent control'' will have to be altered to ``rodent, mink and rabbit control'' or specify rodents and mink or rodents and rabbits. That is simply a matter of tidying up. The same difficulty arises in relation to the brief title of paragraph 9, which refers to the retrieval of game, but really applies to the retrieval of rabbits and hares. Under the Game Act 1831 rabbits are not designated as game. That is a short technical point, but if we are trying to get the Bill right, we might as well do the best we can.

As usual, my hon. Friend and Member for Mid-Sussex hugely amused us all, irrespective of our views on the subject. He also greatly informed us. It may be that the way in which he contributes to our debates allows us to learn a great deal more, not least because his manner and tone is not threatening or aggressive. As a consequence, even those who disagree with him on the matter of principle—that is, whether or not hunting should be banned—stop to listen and reach a different, if not greater, understanding of the issues involved.

In my opinion, this group of amendments exposes the huge misunderstandings that currently exist. I am sure that they are mainly unwitting and unintended, but if the Bill passes into law without the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, great damage will be caused to those who live and work in the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mis-Sussex referred to the Agriculture Act 1947, which allows MAFF to issue notices on farmers or landowners to deal with certain species of animals that become a pest. The NFU has a policy that is based on experience and real life in the country. It says:

``Farmers consider it imperative that the full range of methods currently available is maintained. We have concluded that any further reduction in the range of techniques available would seriously compromise farmers' ability to control agricultural pests effectively and would jeopardise effective management of farm holdings. To this end, the NFU will exercise constant vigilance in respect of proposals for changes in either domestic or EU law.''

The NFU cannot speak in Parliament, except through those of us on the Committee. I have no shame in standing up for the farmers in my constituency who wish to be able to manage rabbit populations that affect their crops. My part of Leicestershire is most noted for beef production and for fattening young beef calves, which are bought in Wales, the north-west of England and sometimes in Scotland, and brought down to feed on the rich grassland of the Welland valley. However, thanks to the common agricultural policy and all the grants and so on, farmers on marginal and grazing land have been encouraged to move to the production of wheat and other arable crops, and farmers in Leicestershire are now suffering from an increase in the rabbit population.

We have heard talk of Railtrack, and I do not wish to labour the point, because that would be tedious. However, as a co-opted Leicestershire Member of Parliament on the Leicestershire and Rutland Country Landowners Association committee, I have been invited more than once to draw to the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the damage caused by rabbits that live in railway embankments to farm crops planted either side of railway lines.

I accept that a ban, under the Bill, on the use of dogs to hunt rabbits would not make it wholly impossible for riparian farmers to control the rabbit populations that infest their crops. We have heard discussion on the use of gas. Farmers can use rifles to shoot rabbits at night. We have heard that described as lamping: people go out, stand on the back of Land-rovers and turn on their headlights. When they see a rabbit ahead of them, they shoot it with a .22 or other rifle or even a shotgun. Of course, one shot with a shotgun and that is it for the rabbit. None the less, it seems wholly unreasonable to block off every means currently and normally available to control rabbit populations.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that we ought to encourage people to hunt rabbits with dogs near a railway line? That would be a reasonably dangerous suggestion.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

Of course it would be dangerous if a train were coming along, but the point is that rabbits not only sit on the embankment, but move up on to the farmer's land, where they eat his crops. For example, I believe that the main railway line from London to Glasgow passes through the Minister's constituency and a little to the west of mine. If he has the time and the opportunity, I suggest that he has a word with either the farmers in Warwickshire who have farms alongside that railway or their representatives. He will find that they are as concerned as the farmers in my part of Leicestershire, where there are other railway lines, about the depredations on their corn by rabbits. They need every available method to control them.

Of course, I am not suggesting that when the express to Glasgow comes along the railway line, either the hon. Gentleman or any other sensible person should go down on to the embankment and set his dogs along the railway embankment. That would be silly, and I do not honestly think that that is what he thought I meant. If the Bill becomes law in its present form, unamended by the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, farmers will be inhibited from walking along the top of the embankment inside their own fence on their own land, with their spaniels, terriers and a shotgun or rifle, to do their best to control the increasing population.

I do not want to indulge in too many personal reminiscences, because I do not want to destroy the magic of those of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, which we enjoyed. When I was a good deal younger in the late 1950s, I used to go out with the keeper on my grandfather's land to help him to control the rabbit population. It was only 15 years or less after the second world war. During the war, the rabbit population had been encouraged as a source of food, but it became so great after the war that the Government wanted it to be controlled, so myxomatosis was reintroduced into this country, as it had been originally introduced into Australia.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham 7:15 pm, 15th February 2001

The hon. and learned Gentleman once again puts his finger on an issue that I have reminded the Committee about from time to time. The problems that we have identified have probably all been created by human beings--largely farmers. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the rabbit population was encouraged because it was a useful source of food. It still is a useful source of food for humans and for other predators in the countryside. That is one change that has been brought about.As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, because of the common agricultural policy, farmers in his area have moved over from fattening up livestock to crop production, which has encouraged rabbits. Any change in the balance of nature is always caused by human intervention.

I am not unsympathetic to the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but we have been discussing the organised hunting of foxes and other species. Rabbits have never come into it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

I have a lot more in common with the hon. Gentleman than he perhaps realises.

Photo of Ms Debra Shipley Ms Debra Shipley Labour, Stourbridge

Now my hon. Friend is worried.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

That is a hugely intelligent remark. I think it may be the hon. Lady's first intervention, for which we are extremely grateful. It shows that she is alive.

To return to the sensible point that the hon. Gentleman made, he and I, and perhaps many others on this side of the hunting issue, have more to agree about than to disagree about, once we have set aside our differences on the wider principle of whether or not to allow hunting. Members who voted in favour of the Bill did so because they disapprove of hunting foxes and red deer in an organised fashion. Some of them did so for animal welfare reasons, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is one of those. Some of them did so for various reasons that were not thought out, because they had not applied their minds in an organised way. Some of them did so because somewhere in the back of their minds they thought that it just ought not to be allowed, and anyhow it is offensive that people with plummy voices should go around on top of horses in a grand way in funny clothes. Others may have had their own reasons.

During our consideration of the Bill, we have discovered that quite a number of people, both inside the House and outside, have not really thought about the issue. We have now had an opportunity to think about the detail of the Bill. Using our own experiences and those of people who are more knowledgeable than we are, we have applied rather more thought to the detailed issues that concern real life outside Committee Room 14.

We are now dealing with the little rabbit—we have done the Fudge joke. There is a world of difference between a child owning a pet rabbit in a garden in London or Nottingham, and a farmer seeing acres of his crops being ruined by infestations of rabbits.

When I was very young, I knew a wonderful old chap called Christmas Humphrys, who retired as a gamekeeper on my grandfather's land well before the second world war. He must have been about 80 at the time, as he was born in the late 1860s or early 1870s; he had a huge beard and wore a moleskin coat and hat, and he used to take me out with his gun and dogs to get a few rabbits for the pot. He taught me a lot about the balance of nature and the need to control rabbits in the country. But he did not have the scientific understanding about poison of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, as, fearlessly and without bother, the old fellow would take with him a little tin of cyanide and a teaspoon on a piece of string, attached to a long stick. He would dip the spoon into the cyanide tin and tip it into the rabbit holes—

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

And then stir his tea with it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

Probably that as well. I wish he had stirred a lot of people's tea with it, but unfortunately, they were not known to him.

I agree that customs, farming practices and animal numbers change and so does the understanding of what is right and wrong; but before we criminalise ordinary men and women who work in the countryside and make them susceptible to fines of up to £5,000, I implore members of the Committee who have not previously taken a close interest in the subject to spend a little more time outside this hothouse looking and learning. They should not take it as read from me, or from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex—although they would not come to any harm if they did so—but spend some time in the areas that will be affected by the measure.

During the passage of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Worcester, I invited the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) for the weekend to see what happened during the regular hunts in my part of Leicestershire—

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

She did not refuse as the keeper of Jimmy and Jill and all the other little furry friends; she deferred to her husband, who was in the Committee Room, who thought that it was not such a good idea. That was a pity, because she would have learned about what goes on, about the people who hunt and what is required to control animals such as rabbits in rural areas. I should be happy to invite the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) to stay—

Photo of Mike Hall Mike Hall Assistant Whip

The hon. and learned Gentleman was not going to refer to me again, but he cannot resist it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

The hon. Gentleman is thoroughly irresistible, but I shall resist the temptation to be drawn further by inviting members of the Committee who take a different view from mine on hunting, before they reject the amendments and railroad the Bill to Report, to bear in mind the points made by those who have more experience of the country than they do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to a letter from someone in Essex; I, too, received that letter and another this morning from a lurcher man in Sunderland—

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

My hon. Friend also received the letter, which I shall not read out as it is not difficult to imagine the gist of what he said. He is a perfectly ordinary, straightforward fellow from Sunderland, who has two or three lurchers, which he uses to catch rabbits to feed them and himself. He is concerned that, if the amendments are not accepted, it will be the end of an innocent but useful pastime, as it helps the farmers on whose land he catches rabbits.

I suspect that the Minister, who has been generous of late, may want to continue that generous mood when responding to the amendments. I am sure that, the briefer my remarks, the more his generosity will improve, so I shall sit down.

Sitting suspended.