Clause 51 - Transitional arrangements

Hunting Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 27th February 2003.

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Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 10:45 am, 27th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 45, in

clause 51, page 19, line 33, leave out 'three' and insert 'twelve'.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 355, in

clause 51, page 19, line 39, at end insert

', or on the expiry of a period of 12 months starting on the date the application was received by the registrar, whichever is the sooner.'.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I rise to speak to amendment No. 45 and to speak strongly against amendment No. 355, tabled by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West.

Clause 51 would extend the period for making initial applications from three to 12 months. As the clause is drafted, individuals or groups who apply within the three months before part 1 comes into force may continue their activities until their applications are determined. By extending that three months to 12 months, we shall increase the time available to people to prepare their applications properly, thus increasing their chance of registering and safeguarding their right to continue hunting until their applications have been properly and fairly determined, either favourably or unfavourably.

As the clause is drafted, no criminal offence of hunting will come into effect until three months after the Act is passed, but part 2, which establishes the registrar and tribunal, will come into effect after one month. By the time the offences come into effect, the process of applying for registration should have begun. However, that may not be the case, depending on the speed with which the registrar and tribunal are established and Parliament agrees the necessary secondary legislation. As it stands, hunts and individuals who apply for registration in those three months are allowed to continue as if the application had been granted until the application is approved or denied. The amendment is simply a question of natural justice, and I hope that it is non-controversial.

As with any evidence-based legal judgment, the quality of the evidence will be crucial. Under the Bill, anyone who seeks registration must show that he wants to hunt for one of the reasons set out in clause 8 and that the activity constitutes pest control and will contribute significantly to preventing the serious damage that the wild mammals in question would cause.

The applicant must also satisfy the least-suffering test. As the Bill was drafted, the applicant had to show that the utility of hunting

''could not reasonably be expected to be made . . . in a manner likely to cause . . . less pain, suffering or distress to the wild mammals to be hunted.''

That standard of proof was toughened to an extraordinary degree in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, which had the Minister's support. Under the Bill as amended, the applicant must now show that hunting would cause significantly less suffering than any other method. Under the original least-suffering test, the applicant had to prove his case on the balance of probabilities, but the test has now been amended and he must prove it beyond reasonable doubt. That is the highest standard in criminal law and it applies to offences such as rape and murder.

There are two hurdles facing individuals and organisations that seek registration.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West 11:00 am, 27th February 2003

The hon. Gentleman outlines the changes, but would he care to remind the Committee that there was no Division on the amendment that I tabled to clause 8(2)? Opposition Members, including the hon. Gentleman, did not oppose that amendment to the cruelty test.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I will have to look back at the record, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point. If that was the case, it should not be taken as any sort of approval on the part of Opposition Members, given the overwhelming numbers of Labour Members.

As I said, there are two hurdles facing those who seek registration. The first is to prove that something will happen rather than might happen. That is unknowable. The onus is therefore on the applicant to foresee not only what damage certain wild animals will cause but the seriousness of that unknowable future damage.

The second hurdle is to prove that hunting would cause significantly less suffering than any alternative. That automatically assumes that hunting is cruel and, ipso facto, the worst method. The Bill therefore requires the applicant to prove that other methods are not only worse but significantly so. How can someone do that when the research has not been done? Throughout this long Committee, hon. Members on both sides have selectively quoted the Burns report, which lends itself to that. Although Burns expresses several views there is a consistent caveat before many of his key recommendations. It is:

''There is a lack of firm scientific evidence about the effect on the welfare of a fox of being closely pursued, caught and killed above ground by hounds.''

The words

''lack of firm scientific evidence''

appear in points 56 and 57 of the summary, and they recur consistently throughout the report. In chapter 9, the report makes a clear recommendation of further research. He states:

''We have noted, in earlier chapters, a number of issues on which there appears to be a lack of firm information. A good many of these would probably lend themselves to further work, and could be considered as possible research studies, if a ban on hunting was not introduced. A number of them would be of considerable relevance even if there was not a ban.''

A list is cited in relation to foxes, deer and hares. The comparative welfare implications of different methods of killing foxes in particular are singled out as an area that requires further research.

Before the tribunal, we will be looking not for views but for firm evidence. That is surely the only thing that will be acceptable. It is indisputable that according to Burns that firm evidence is not there. All the way through the Committee, the Minister has consistently failed to bring forward any categorical, clinical, veterinary or scientific evidence to support his assertions.

How can applicants going before the tribunal disprove an assumption of hunting being cruel when it has never been proven? One cannot disprove something that has never been proven and one certainly cannot do it in the matter of weeks set out by the new licensing regime. The purpose of setting out in some detail the standard of proof and evidence required of an applicant under clause 8 is to show that, to have any chance of being registered, any individual or group will need sufficient time to prepare and research that application while being allowed to continue their lawful activities until the application is finally determined.

It must not be forgotten that the law-abiding citizens who are making applications will be up against the wealth of resources of potentially hostile prescribed animal welfare organisations that are benefiting from Government grants. The whole process is weighted against the applicant and predicated on the falsehood that hunting has been proven on the basis of fact and science to be cruel. That is clearly not the case.

The Minister was ready to accept an increase in the time period that must elapse between the failure of one application and a new application from six to 12 months, despite the terrible effect that that will have on gamekeepers, farmers and land managers. I ask the Minister if, as a way of retrieving a little of his tattered reputation in the matter, he will accept the amendment as a gesture that shows—I am addressing my points through the Chair directly to the Minister and I would be grateful if he would listen to my point—

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is a little childish for Opposition Members to feel that they have to seek attention in this way. We could all hop up and down and point out when Opposition Members are not paying attention to comments, whether they are made by Ministers or others. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall take his remarks seriously when I respond to them.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I am sorry that the Minister felt the need to hop up like that. I am coming to my final remarks on the amendment and was addressing those remarks specifically to him. He is obviously not listening again. [Interruption.] Would the Minister stop rambling on and allow me to finish?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On a point of order, Mrs. Roe, is the hon. Gentleman allowed simply to be rude about

Government Members instead of dealing with the issues, addressing them through you?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I was asking the Minister if he will make a final gesture that will demonstrate to the people in the countryside, however stacked against them the Bill is, that he will at least give them a fair and proper chance of passing an impassable test.

I firmly oppose amendment No. 355, which would mean that a person who put in an application within three months of the passing of the Bill would be allowed to continue hunting only until the application was determined or after 12 months from the date on which the registrar received the application. The amendment is breathtaking and extraordinary. It shows clearly that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has no faith in the system that the Minister proposes or the Minister's ability to run and direct the system.

The amendment is also an extraordinary departure. Imagine if the same principle was applied to asylum seekers. They come to this country and make an application. The onus is on them to prove that they have a fair and valid reason to seek asylum. We know that the asylum system is riddled with delays. It has been inundated with applications and has not coped. Imagine if each asylum seeker was told after 12 months, ''Sorry, your time is up. We haven't been able to deal with your application. Go back to whence you came.'' That would be extraordinary, but the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West proposes that the same principle of justice should be imposed on people in the countryside who carry out activities that have been legal and that they believe remain fair and normal. They would be penalised in a totally unacceptable way and imposing such justice on any other member of the community would be unacceptable.

The Bill accepts that hunting is a legal activity that has been carried out through the mists of time. It will ban certain forms of hunting but sets tests that other forms must pass to remain lawful. The fact that the Bill is a ban in all but form is irrelevant to the amendment. The Bill accepts that a currently legal activity may still be legal after it has been subjected to two tests and as such, if individuals or groups apply for registration in an allotted time, they should be presumed innocent until their case for registration has been determined. People should not be criminalised at a stroke only to be decriminalised if their application for registration is successful.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon

Does my hon. Friend agree that a cynic might be forgiven for thinking that the impetus for the registrar to deal with an application would not be great if it would elapse after 12 months anyway?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Absolutely. The hearings in Portcullis house were totally manipulated and they have been exposed in this Committee as a total and utter sham and a massive deceit. On the basis of what we have seen from the Government so far, no one can

have any faith that the tribunal system will be fair if there is a cut-off after 12 months.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

With regard to the effectiveness of the three-day hearings, does the hon. Gentleman accept that having participated in them, I believe that the outcomes were entirely healthy, impressive and useful for debate? The tragedy is that many of the facts have been ignored by those who did not bother reading the reports or who retained their prejudices after reading them.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I wholeheartedly agree. I was not denigrating those who participated in the proceedings in Portcullis house or in the Burns report. I was simply pointing out that the Government organised the proceedings as a ruse—the purpose was a sham.

The Government have tried to limit trial by jury and want to abolish the right to silence in certain cases. However, surely even this illiberal Government, which has moved against so many civil rights that have been cherished for centuries, would not question the basic principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The Bill starts from an assumption of guilt. It is structured on the basis that hunting is proven to be cruel, although we know that it is not. The Bill reverses the burden of proof. The applicant is deemed guilty and must prove that he is not to be allowed to continue hunting.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon 11:15 am, 27th February 2003

Does my hon. Friend know of any other legislation under which an applicant would lose the right to be granted a licence after a statutory period of 12 months if, for whatever reason, his application had not been processed? Also, the law is so weighted against the applicant that a preferred organisation, yet to be determined in legislation, is effectively to be bankrolled by the state to lodge an objection should that applicant ever have been granted his registration in the first place.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is absolutely not. He makes an extremely clear and powerful point. This is the most horrendous amendment. I have no idea whether all the money that is to go to the prescribed animal welfare groups would have to be returned if the licence were denied after 12 months because the application had not been heard. So many questions remain unanswered in relation to this nasty little amendment that I hope it will not be pressed to a division.

While applications are sub judice, the correct presumption, which the Bill reflects, is that what has always been lawful should remain lawful unless it fails the new statutory tests for lawfulness. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West fears that the bureaucratic system that the Bill establishes and that the Minister will erect will be inadequately managed, supervised and directed by the Minister, and will not be able to cope with the thousands of applications and appeals that will result.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has little faith in his colleagues or the system. He seems to be saying that it would be better to judge everybody guilty at some arbitrary date and then some years later say to them,

''Sorry, we were absolutely wrong. What you were doing was legal all along. Our mistake.'' That is playing with people's lives and may cost them their livelihoods, turn families out of their homes, and have a profound impact on the ecology and wildlife of the English countryside. There will be hugely damaging consequences across whole communities, all because the Government could not act quickly enough to deal with a bureaucratic, intolerant, illiberal licensing regime that they have imposed arbitrarily. That is grossly unfair and flies in the face of natural justice.

I profoundly disagree with many of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman forward during this long Committee stage, but I give him credit for the intellectual rigour that he always tried to bring to his arguments. He has always been attentive to the Opposition, although we often do not agree with him. He has tried in certain cases to understand the arguments about which we feel so strongly. I appeal without rancour to his better nature and ask him to consider the reality of what the amendment would impose and the precedent that it would set. I appeal to him not to press the amendment to a Division.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Given the comprehensive remarks of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who opposed my amendment, hon. Members will be fairly clear about the import of the amendment. It would, as he suggested, introduce a long stop to cap the transitional period and I stress that. It is not that I have no faith in my right hon. Friend the Minister, but I am concerned about huge numbers of applications clogging up the system. Group registrations involve 50 people. I cannot do the maths, but some hon. Members may be able to—if they perm any 49 from those 50, some 2,500 applications could be made. That could represent a concerted campaign by those who wish to carry on with their activities.

We should also bear in mind something that, with the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman overlooked in his remarks. We are dealing with a transitional period. If an applicant or group of applicants fell foul of the transitional 12-month long stop that I want to insert in the Bill, but it was subsequently determined that their application was in order and they passed the sequential test in clause 8, they could resume their activity.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that there is a cost to keeping hounds, to keeping horses stabled and to maintaining the fabric of the hunting community? It would be no good for a hunting community or a hunt to be told 24 months or 3 years after their activities had been stopped by the force of criminal law, ''You can carry on now'', when people have lost their jobs or been turned out of their homes and the hounds have been lost or put to sleep. It is facile to suggest such a thing.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

That is an interesting intervention because it implies that there will be a campaign to clog up the system. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting—[Interruption.] I will finish my point and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. He is suggesting that applications could take up to three years to determine, which suggests a concerted campaign to clog up the system.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I am not suggesting that there will be a concerted campaign. I am simply saying that the hon. Gentleman tabled the amendment because he clearly has no faith in the Minister's ability to deliver a verdict within 12 months. If activities are stopped, irrevocable harm and damage will be done to any ability to resume hunting later.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

One must bear in mind that this example is not unique. In the licensing of on and off-sales in public houses, someone who is outwith the rules for a short period still has to pay the overhead on the public house.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Regardless of how many applications are received, it goes against natural justice arbitrarily to prevent well-meaning individuals who are acting in good faith in the spirit of the legislation from continuing their activity after 12 months, simply because the system cannot cope. The hon. Gentleman is trying to close what he regards to be a loophole created by the inadequacies of the legislation. The punishment—which is effectively what it would be—is inappropriate. The correct response is to ensure that the legislation works. I understand what he is trying to do, but he is hitting the wrong target.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I am not trying to close a loophole. As I have said, I am trying to exert pressure to ensure that we have a proper registrar and tribunal system that deals with such matters promptly. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should allow me to develop my argument. We have an adequate system of registrars and tribunals that deals with the applications timeously. It is in the interests of the applicants as well as society to decide whether to regulate an activity.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the licensing of public houses and how a publican has to continue paying rates while his application is processed. That is a wrong allusion because it ignores animal welfare. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said earlier, if a hunt has been refused a licence—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.