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Hunting Act 2004

Volume 764: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their proposed amendments to the Hunting Act 2004 on efforts to protect animal welfare.

My Lords, the proposed amendments do not overturn the hunting ban. Pursuit and killing of wild animals by dogs remains illegal. Hare coursing also remains illegal. The UK continues to have some of the strongest animal welfare protection in the world.

I wonder if the Minister has ever read the Conservative Party manifesto. In the spirit of helpfulness, perhaps I may point to one sentence:

“A Conservative Government will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government Bill in government time”.

Whatever made the Government think that they could slip a measure through without having a full Bill, as they were contemplating doing a few days ago? Do not the Government realise that getting this measure through Parliament would be deeply unpopular—as it is in the country? Would not the best thing be to drop the whole daft idea?

I can confirm that I did read the Conservative manifesto, and I think that quite a lot of the electorate probably read it as well. On the noble Lord’s point, of course there is a manifesto commitment about a free vote, and that will come. What we were dealing with here was secondary legislation to bring in technical changes which would bring the legislation into line with that which exists in Scotland. That is what was at issue in this debate. No secondary legislation would change the primary purpose of the Bill, so that is a separate matter.

Does the noble Lord accept that an amendment to the Hunting Act which makes the number of dogs allowed to chase a wild animal limitless will make the Bill unenforceable? It has done that in Scotland, where there have been zero prosecutions for mounted hunts.

I do not think that it will make it unworkable. There has been concern, which has been expressed in representations from farmers, particularly in upland areas, that the current provisions and exemptions for pest control are unworkable, causing them problems and resulting in the loss of livestock as a result of attacks by foxes. So the question was: can they bring it into line with that which is already the case in Scotland? The view was that that was a reasonable request and something which should be done.

Will my noble friend agree with me that the Government’s proposals did not constitute repeal but were welcome nevertheless, and that we look forward to repeal, as it is in the manifesto, at a convenient moment in the future? In asking this question I declare my interest as chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, chairman of the Council of Hunting Associations and chairman of the Countryside Alliance.

My noble friend makes me grateful for that provision in the manifesto which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to, that it is a free vote on these matters.

My Lords, is not a pattern emerging regarding the Government’s attitude to legislation and the role of Parliament? Both the Delegated Legislation Committee and the Constitution Committee have expressed concerns about a worrying trend to limit scrutiny in this House. We have the absurdity of the Government’s trying to rush through English votes for English laws with a multi-page amendment to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons with no reference to or debate in the House of Lords. Then, with the fox hunting legislation, we have a pantomime of trying to change—whatever the noble Lord says, it would change—the intent and the purpose of primary legislation through an amendment in secondary legislation. Are these examples the amateurish, foolish mistakes of inexperienced Ministers, or are the Government now frightened of sensible scrutiny?

They might be, but the question is: which Ministers? The power to vary the exemptions was in the Act introduced by the Labour Government in 2004. Section 2(2) provides for the ability to amend Schedule 1 to the Act. We are simply taking the opportunity and advantage of the provision that they wisely put into the legislation.

My Lords, to what does my noble friend attribute the behaviour of the Scottish National Party, which appears to oppose amending the law in England so that it is aligned with that in Scotland and which a few months ago undertook not to do what it says it would now do?

My noble friend raises an important point. In February, Nicola Sturgeon said:

“The SNP have a longstanding position of not voting on matters that purely affect England—such as foxhunting south of the border, for example—and we stand by that”.

That was the SNP’s position then; we know what its position is now, and I think people can draw their own conclusions. It also plays into a wider issue of why SNP Members of Parliament should seek to use their influence to stop England and Wales having the same exemptions as they have in Scotland.

My Lords, our society accepts the killing of animals for specific purposes. Does the Minister agree with me that such killing should be strongly justified, should be carried out in as humane a manner as possible and should be done by competent individuals acting in a cool and dispassionate but compassionate way? Furthermore, will he go so far as to agree with me—I doubt that he will—that in a civilised society like ours, we should do all we can to dissuade individuals from pursuing leisure activities for pleasure which result in the killing of animals?

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is very clear that the causing of unnecessary suffering to an animal is an offence and the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine or six months’ imprisonment. That is not what we are talking about here; we recognise in certain circumstances that it is necessary to control pests, particularly in rural areas. The argument made is that the current provisions do not allow that to be done effectively. There is no question of contravening the Hunting Act, as my noble friend has mentioned, because that bans hunting with dogs to kill mammals. That would not be done in this case. It is a case of flushing out using dogs, with the killing done as humanely as possible but at the point of a gun.