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Cockfighting Bill

Volume 164: debated on Wednesday 19 October 1949

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2.49 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

My Lords, the measure which I propose to bring before your Lordships is quite a short one, and I trust it will commend itself to you. As many of your Lordships know, cockfighting has been illegal in this country since, I think, 1835; but it is well known that "mains," as these exhibitions are called, have been held up and down the country ever since. The law at the present is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce; it is difficult to obtain reliable evidence of the holding of a main. I and a few of my friends have felt that either the law should be repealed—which no one desires—or that steps should be taken to make it possible to enforce it.

On various occasions when reliable information that a cockfighting main was about to take place has come to the knowledge of the police or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, they have tried in vain to track down where the main was to be held, but the promoters of the main, knowing that they were liable for fairly heavy penalties—under the present law either a fine of £25 or imprisonment for six months—have taken great care that the place where the main was going to be held was kept secret. In fact, when a main is going to take place in a certain district, strangers who are seen walking about in the vicinity are regarded with grave suspicion.

Frequently people who are going to take part in a main or who are going to watch it are not told where it is going to be held until the day upon which it is due to take place. The mains are held in remote parts of the country and sometimes indoors. So far as one can make out, the birds are carried about in motor cars, milk floats or covered vans of some sort, and if they are stopped by the police the drivers explain that the birds are being taken to a show, and nothing more can be done about it. Nevertheless, a certain number of successful prosecutions have occurred. There were six between 1927 and the outbreak of the last war where the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did manage to secure convictions. What was interesting was that those prosecutions took place in widely different parts of the country—two from Lancashire, one from Derbyshire, one from Yorkshire, one from Hampshire and one from Cumberland—showing that the sport is fairly widespread.

May I now turn to the Short Bill which I wish to introduce to your Lordships? Clause 1 (1) makes it unlawful for any person to have
"in his possession
(a) any domestic fowl prepared for use in fighting."
The kind of preparation which is made for a fowl before it fights is that the wattle and comb are cut. That is clone because they are the parts of the bird which are most liable to become septic and infected if injured. A certain amount of cutting is done to the neck and tail feathers so that no part of the bird will protrude and therefore a bird cannot get a grip of its adversary. The third thing is that the natural spurs of the bird are cut off and metal spurs made of steel or silver are fixed to the stumps by means of leather straps. I have an example here of the spurs which are fixed to the birds. One can see that they are capable of causing grave injury to the birds involved in the fighting. One thing which people say in favour of these spurs is that, when a bird is wounded by steel or silver spurs, the wounds heal more quickly than wounds caused by the natural fighting spur. Whether that is true or not I do not know, but that is what is said.

Paragraph (b) of subsection (1) makes it unlawful for a person to possess
"any instrument or appliance designed or adapted for use in connection with the fighting of any domestic fowl."
Thai refers solely to spurs of the kind which I have shown your Lordships. The penalty for an offence is either a fine of £25 or a period of imprisonment not exceeding three months, or both. Subsection (2) is of considerable value because it gives the right of appeal against a court order and, while that appeal is pending, no action ca n be taken either to confiscate or destroy the bird or to confiscate or destroy the spurs. That right of appeal will, I think, afford a reasonably good protection for the person who has a pair of cockfighting spurs which he keeps for historic or family interest, or for some other interest of that sort. Subsection (3) has been included to protect the normal breeder of poultry who may be forced, by sickness or by injury of the bird to cut the comb or wattle, or to cut out the tail or neck feathers. A bird has to be completely prepared before it can be held that an offence has been committed, and the cutting of the comb or wattle does not necessarily mean that the bird is prepared for cockfighting.

Those are the sole provisions of this Bill. It is extremely difficult to find any accounts of cockfighting mains which have occurred in recent times, but one report was published in a newspaper just before the war. A bird from Lancashire was matched against a bird from Cumberland, and early in the fight the Cumberland bird destroyed both the eyes of the bird from Lancashire. One would have thought that the fight would have stopped. But the spectators wished for a fight to the finish, so the blinded and bleeding bird had perforce to fight on.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are very much in favour of this Bill. The Dumb Friends' League, an important body, think it is a valuable measure. The police support its introduction and feel that they need it because, once it has passed into law, it will be possible to go a long way, if not the whole way, towards stamping out this unpleasant sport. I trust that I have said enough to persuade your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a .—( Lord Amulree.)

2.58 p.m.

My Lords, I do not wish to stand between your Lordships and the next business for more than two or three minutes, but I am sure that I voice your Lordships' wishes on all the sides of the House when I congratulate the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill, with the purpose of which we are all in full agreement. Having said that, may I say that there is no reason why we should pass a Bill which is designed for a purpose which we support but which nevertheless, with respect, is badly drafted and very vague in many of its provisions. I know it is not our wish to pass legislation which is not definite in its statements and purposes.

If your Lordships will look at the Bill for one moment, you will see that it contains no definitions at all. For instance, Clause 1 says:
"If any person has in his possession (a) any domestic fowl prepared for use in fighting."
The noble Lord who moved the Second Reading gave us his definition of "preparing a bird for fighting," but I submit that we ought not to pass a Bill without a clause defining what is meant by "preparing." Again, Clause I says:
"(b) any instrument or appliance designed or adapted for use in connection with the fighting of any domestic fowl."
The noble Lord who moved the Bill showed us a terrible and horrible-looking pair of spurs which would have inflicted cruelty on a bird, and said that he interpreted the Bill as applying to those spurs. But the words of the Bill are
"any instrument or appliance designed or adapted…"
There are many instruments which could, if necessary, be adapted for use in this cruel sport. I submit that that particular clause should at a later stage be tidied up.

Then in subsection (2) there is a provision which says:
"Where any person is convicted of an offence under this section, the court may order any domestic fowl…to be destroyed…and, if an appeal is lodged, no such domestic fowl…shall be destroyed."
Does the Bill mean that no such domestic fowl shall be destroyed because an appeal has been lodged; does it mean that should the fowl become ill the owner is not entitled to destroy it, in which case the owner might be imposing needless cruelty on the fowl by keeping it alive; or does it mean that the fowl must be kept in protective custody? I cite these particular cases not in any spirit of levity but because, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the purpose of the Bill, I submit to your Lordships that in the form in which it has come down from another place it is not in a fit state to be passed into law.

3.1 p.m.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has said, this is a completely uncontroversial measure. On behalf of His Majesty's Government I am prepared to say that we shall be glad for it to be given a Second Reading, subject to any Amendments which the House may consider necessary in view of the observations made by the noble Lord opposite. The speech of the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading might be taken throughout the country as implying that there is a great deal of this cockfighting going on. In fact there is no reason to suppose that it is at all prevalent, although the noble Lord is no doubt right when he says that occasional mains do take place—indeed, I have spoken to people who have been present on these occasions. The noble Lord is also right when he says that the great difficulty is to track them down, and the police will undoubtedly be glad to have the additional powers which the Bill provides.

Do I gather from the observations of the noble Lord on the Front Opposition Bench that he is proposing to divide the House against the Bill? If so, I should like to make some observations. If not, I need not detain the House.

My Lords, many years ago a Private Member's Bill for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was brought before this House. It was a much more untidy Bill than this, and I remember moving a number of Amendments to that Bill, which was eventually passed. In consequence of these Amendments it was accepted as a principle by the Home Office that, in future, before Bills of this character were passed they would be adopted by the Government—that is to say, that the Government would not merely adopt an attitude of benevolent neutrality, as seems to be the case to-day, but would definitely accept responsibility for the measures proposed by the Bill. I hope that the present Government will adopt such an attitude with this Bill.

3.4 p.m.

My Lords, may I add one word? I think we are all agreed that this Bill should be given its Second Reading to-day, but that we should all—including the authorities which the Government have at their disposal, these at the Home Office and the Parliamentary draftsmen—co-operate to see that when it eventually emerges from our discussions it will be a measure on which the police can properly act, and on which the courts will know what to do if suitable cases are brought before them. I have no doubt that we shall have that full advice from the Government Front Bench during the Committee stage of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a , and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.