It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, in this important debate. I apologise for the fact that I am full of some sort of bug, so please excuse my voice. I thank my good and hon. Friend Christian Matheson—a wonderful city—for bringing the debate forward.
I am very lucky to have grown up in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich, which is a mixture of towns and villages surrounded by beautiful countryside. We greatly value our farming community in the area, with regular farmers markets, many excellent walks and, I bet, some of the very best farm shops in the country. However, representing a constituency that is surrounded by such glorious countryside means that, like my hon. Friend, I am regularly contacted by constituents who have concerns about wildlife crime.
Over the winter period, that concern seemed to intensify. Constituents were upset and infuriated that video footage taken each week seemed to show that foxes are being hunted and regularly killed by dogs. My constituents’ anger came from the fact that despite it being against the law to hunt with dogs, the loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 make it almost impossible to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I have raised this matter in the Chamber, and we desperately need the Act to be strengthened to ensure that the will of Parliament, and that of the overwhelming majority of the public, is respected. The Government should do the right thing and strengthen the Act by adding a recklessness clause, in order to end the ridiculous situation where hunt participants can avoid prosecution simply by claiming that the chasing and killing of a fox by their dogs was an accident.
Fifteen years on from the Hunting Act 2004, foxes are still being ripped apart by packs of dogs and killed brazenly by hunt participants, who know that they can escape prosecution. I find it a strange hobby to dress up like a toy soldier to chase a much smaller and vulnerable animal, and I also find it strange that policymakers appear to take such a contrasting approach to this so-called sport, compared with other examples of animal cruelty.
It is clear that along with changes to the Hunting Act 2004, we need to see stronger deterrents put in place. It is worth pointing out that the average fine for offences over the last 10 years has been just £267. Killing a fox carries a maximum penalty of £5,000, yet killing a badger can carry a six-month custodial sentence. Following a successful prosecution under the Hunting Act 2004, those responsible should face forfeiture of their dogs. As a dog owner myself, I have huge concerns about the way that those dogs are treated.
I have sat in the home of friends of mine when the sound of a horn has blared and, all of a sudden, their property has had a swarm of huntsmen and dogs tearing through it. That was quite an unnerving experience on a Sunday afternoon, and my friends’ animals and children were left terrified. Again, there seems to be an attitude of being above the law among people who partake in this so-called sport. I would like to see more clarity on the role of terrier men, who can operate independently but still frequently follow hunts. Their only known function is to block badger setts and escape holes to prevent foxes from escaping underground, and to use dogs to flush out any creature that tries to hide.
I am sure that it is blatantly obvious that I am not from a background where this kind of tradition ever took place. I am proud to be a member of the Labour party—an organisation that has consistently placed the welfare of animals high on the policy agenda and has committed to strengthening the Hunting Act 2004.