Wildlife Crime — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 20th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:30 pm, 20th March 2019

I accept that, and the particular consequence is that issues such as wildlife crime, which often requires specifically trained officers, are the first to fall by the wayside. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will refer to that later.

The Prime Minister has openly declared her support for foxhunting, and the Conservative manifesto committed to granting a free vote on the issue, although I welcome the Government confirming that they would not bring forward such a vote during this Session of Parliament. The Hunting Act continues to be abused across the board. There is a sense of a lack of political will from Government Ministers, which means the issue is constantly swept under the carpet. Responsibility is put on the shoulders of crumbling police forces, which are struggling, as my hon. Friend said. They have had £2.7 billion of real-terms cuts in direct Government funding since 2010.

The League Against Cruel Sports has collated at least 282 reports of suspected illegal hunting activity across the UK since the beginning of the foxhunting season on 1 November 2018, and 42 separate reports of foxes being killed. That indicates the scale of continued illegal hunting, although it is clear, when we take into account unreported cases and hunts that are not monitored, that the figures represent merely the tip of the iceberg.

The Hunting Act clearly needs to be strengthened. The evidence of abuse is clear and the required adjustments are straightforward. Weaknesses within the law, as identified by the RSPB and the NFU, are preventing blatant law-breaking by registered hunts from being effectively tackled. All that is needed is for the Government to have the will to act.

Fundamentally, the Hunting Act has no teeth. The deterrence value of penalties under the Hunting Act is significantly lacking. Only fines are available. Ministry of Justice data shows that the average fine for offences under the Hunting Act over the past 10 years was a measly £267, which is a price many hunters are willing to risk. It is certainly one they can afford. Custodial sentences need to be introduced to bring the law at least into line with penalties for other crimes against wild animals, such as badger baiting.

One of the main weaknesses is that the offence is a summary offence only, and an absolute offence. There is no offence, for example, of attempting to kill a fox with a hunt, and prosecutors would have to prove an intent to kill a fox. A hunt can therefore chase a fox across countryside with unmuzzled dogs following its scent. If the fox is killed unintentionally—whatever that might mean in this context—a conviction becomes difficult to obtain, as if chasing a fox with a pack of dogs does not indicate intent to kill it. Let us face it: the dogs do not know any better.

Even if there is video evidence showing the culprit with the dead fox, as happened in Cheshire, that is not sufficient to gain a prosecution, let alone a conviction. Cheshire police were criticised earlier this year when their press office put out a statement suggesting that we cannot believe everything we see on social media. Those press officers were right, but that does not mean we cannot believe anything we see on social media.

Another excuse is trail hunting, which allows for foxes to be accidentally killed by dogs on hunts. It is especially pernicious when the trail is laid using the urine of captive foxes. Why are the dogs not trained to follow a different scent? A gaping hole in the legislation allows hunts to claim that any chasing and killing was merely coincidental and accidental. For those who do not know, trail hunting involves people on foot or horseback following a scent along a pre-determined route with hounds or beagles. The concept of trail hunting is to effectively replicate a hunt without hurting a fox. It has been described by a judge in one case as a “cynical subterfuge”. In that case, the judge dismissed an appeal by two hunt employees who were part of the Harborough-based Fernie hunt and were convicted of breaching hunting laws. They were found guilty of hunting a live fox and digging into an active badger sett.

There is no system to record wildlife crimes in the UK and identify the size and scale of the activity. A recent Wildlife and Countryside Link report noted that 1,283 wildlife crime incidents were recorded by non-governmental organisations in 2017. Shockingly, only nine individuals and businesses were prosecuted.

Many wildlife crimes are currently not recordable or notifiable offences. That means that vital information about crimes that have been reported and investigated is not being collected by police forces across England and Wales. Valuable information about trends in crime and intelligence, which would lead to the allocation of resources, is therefore lost. Without proper information, the Government are also under less pressure to actually do something about such crimes.

The practice of stopping up foxholes and badger setts, and using terriers to chase foxes out of their dens, continues. That surely demonstrates intent. Badgers are killed in the process, too. One Cheshire hunt monitor told me of such activities this year:

“On one occasion this hunt season we checked a large badger sett, it was fine and very active. The next day we discovered the hunt was due in the area…we went to check the sett on the hunt day and it had quad bike tracks leading straight to it and to several other setts in the immediate area, all entrances were filled in, we could see spade marks and boot prints. The hunt rode straight up to the badger sett that day and stopped, they were clearly surprised to see us, we then had to unblock 41 sett entrances or the badgers would have suffocated. We went back over subsequent days to monitor activity and we used thermal imaging technology to check the badgers were still alive. This sett is constantly targeted.”

David Keane, the police and crime commissioner for Cheshire, undertook a review of the laws relating to hunting and of his force’s implementation of those laws. He, too, found that

“the current legislation in the way it is drafted presents challenges to investigators and prosecutors”,

and that it causes confusion to the public and others.

Issues have been raised with Mr Keane regarding how legislation could be amended to assist. Following his review, he has made three proposals. The first is that recklessness should be applicable, beyond the current requirement to prove intent—a requirement that is not mirrored in all areas of criminal law. The second is for the introduction of an authorised list of scents, excluding fox or other wild mammal urine, for use in trail hunting. Thirdly, he has spoken of the need for a clearer definition of the role of, or restriction associated with, terrier men: those who follow the hunt around and assist.

In the past week, ahead of the debate, I have received countless emails from concerned citizens, appalled at the continued killing of wild animals for pleasure and the seeming inability of the law to bring people to account. Clearly, the laws on foxhunting are being deliberately flouted, by people who either believe that they are above the law, or are not deterred by the threat of the sanctions available under it. I fail to understand how someone can get pleasure from killing animals, and can conclude only that such people are in some way disturbed.

At the very least, the law on hunting with dogs needs to be changed to include recklessness as an offence. We might look at limits on the number of dogs allowed, and there is support across the House for increasing to five years the penalty for convictions for animal cruelty. That might help to deal with the bagging of foxes and the issue of hounds being given fox cubs for training purposes.

If those solutions are not adopted, however, we might have to consider another: banning hunting with dogs altogether. Hunts have had their chance to demonstrate that they are responsible, but they are failing to take it, possibly deliberately. The police are struggling nationally with manpower, and wildlife crime falls well below other priorities. Police are not always trained in the finer points of the detail of wildlife protection laws. To make it easier, we need to give them the tools to do their job, and that means much tougher laws to protect our wildlife.