Monday 25 April 2022
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
Vehicle Tampering Offences
[Relevant document: Summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on vehicle tampering offences, reported to the House on 14 April 2022, HC 243.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 600954, relating to vehicle tampering offences.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. This petition was created by Gareth James, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week. It is a response to proposed new offences that would cover any individual who tampers with a vehicle that is to be used on the road where the principal effect is
“to bypass, defeat, reduce the effectiveness of or render inoperative a system, part or component”.
I am grateful to be on the Petitions Committee; not always, but very often, it allows me to be made aware of aspects of our society that I might not always see. It allows me to meet the great British public, and to seek the right thing from the Government. This is one of those times. Doing the right thing for the right reasons is a principle I seek to live by, as an individual and as a Member of Parliament. This petition has force behind it, and it needs to be listened to.
I have spoken with many stakeholders during my time on the Petitions Committee, and one concern is that these new offences may affect cars that are used solely on the racetrack. That is a legitimate concern, as that would adversely affect motorsports throughout the country. I believe that is not the case, but I ask the Minister to clarify and confirm that point in her response.
That leads me to the issue of vehicles that will be affected—road-going vehicles that are altered just to be more individual, as well as those that are driven to a track in order to race and/or be shown. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of going to Santa Pod Raceway and meeting stakeholders in the industry, including Dan Melrose, who spent his time showing me around the event, and Santa Pod’s chief executive officer, Keith Bartlett, plus members of the national street rod and street eliminator associations, to name just a few. They told me about not just the economic value of this industry to the country, but the education and joy that it brings to so many people, including many young people—I do remember being young.
The day I attended Santa Pod was apparently a quiet day, as the industry, like many, is still recovering from the covid pandemic—or so I was told. It did not seem very quiet to me. Thousands upon thousands of people were enjoying their day off, getting together and having fun at nobody else’s expense. Many were there closely examining the vehicles on show and comparing myriad improvements to their own vehicles. Every car was unique in its own way, the result of many pounds and many hours spent perfecting it and making it exactly how its owner wanted it to be. It was literally a labour of love.
Like most things in life, we only ever see the end product; we do not see the hours spent in the freezing cold garage in a dimly lit area, taking a car to pieces and successfully putting it back together again. The engineers in this industry probably all started their journey in their garage at home, keeping busy and out of trouble, gaining skills for the future, not hurting anybody and doing what they love. More than anything else, that is what I want to protect; indeed, all of us in this House must protect the freedom to do what we enjoy that hurts nobody. The freedom to do something that causes no harm to others should never be proscribed. I agree that the Government have a duty to keep us safe, but they should do so only in a way that is carefully thought through. If the Government are not careful in this instance, they may just fail to do that.
Gareth, who started this petition, started working on cars in his late teens; a friend’s dad worked for Vauxhall, and they worked on cars together. Many of our engineers started with similar hobbies, which are of paramount importance if the UK is to continue to be the innovative country that it is. This is not a hobby like football or Formula 1 that appears to be pumped full of money at every opportunity; in fact, it is usually the lack of money that gets people started in the first place, fixing cars for themselves rather than taking them to a garage. We must be able to let this industry continue, as to let it fail would be a crying shame and cost us dearly over the coming years. It can never have been the Government’s intention, when drafting these proposals, to cause the demise of the motorsport and classic car industries.
I spoke recently to Motorsport UK, which informed me that the industry is worth £9 billion, with 4,500 companies actively involved and 87% exporting their products and services. It also informed me that the classic car industry supports 113,000 jobs. Those are huge numbers, but the industry understands that we cannot have cars on the road that have been altered to a poor standard and are not fit for purpose. However, it points out that many of the alterations improve the car’s safety, especially in the classic car market. It has asked the Government to look at excluding vehicles involved in motorsport and all classic vehicles. It would like a passport system, under which modifications could be done only by members of accredited organisations, and which would allow vehicles to drive to and from events on a limited number of days each year. That seems fairly sensible to me. Transporting a vehicle on the back of a heavy goods vehicle is expensive and hardly good for the environment.
There are still many people who enjoy improving their vehicles but do not want to race or show them, so joining an association would be a further cost, with what they might think has no benefit at all. I spoke to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which generally agrees with what the Government are trying to do, but it also understands the aftermarket industry’s value, so it believes that a blanket ban might not be the best way forward. We have to ask ourselves what can be done.
We need clarification of what is classed as tampering. Good tampering should not be made an offence. I am a believer in climate change and that we must act to mitigate its worst effects. I therefore start from the premise that tampering with any part of the system that can increase the original vehicle’s emissions is wrong and should be discouraged. That may include the mapping of cars, which can dump fuel to create popping from the exhaust. If a system creates just a little more noise than first intended but does not break current noise regulations, that is fine, but we must have regard to climate change and look after our planet.
Then there are areas that are mainly cosmetic: wheels, spoilers, decals and so on. I see no harm in those, so I hope that that form of tampering continues to be allowed. It hurts nobody and there seems to be no reason why it should be proscribed. Then there are modifications that make the car safer for the track but do not affect any of the main mechanicals that keep the car on the road—items such as roll cages, seating, electrical cut-outs and fire extinguishers. Again, those should be allowed. They hurt nobody and there is no reason why they should be proscribed.
I understand that works on suspension, brakes and the main engine and gearbox ought to be carried out by a trained professional using good aftermarket parts. I know many will disagree with me, but the Government have a duty to keep all road users safe, and a braking system that is not installed correctly, for example, could cause serious harm. A way forward is to make sure that all vehicle manufacturers support the aftermarket industry with specifications for all parts that could be replaced or uprated at a later date so that there are no monopolies on servicing. If the Government insist on stopping tampering, perhaps a compromise could be that any altered vehicle is tested again after each major improvement. The SMMT thought that an extension of the individual vehicle approval scheme might also be a way forward, so I ask the Minister whether that could be explored further.
One final point is the fact that the concerns of the 30,000-plus independent workshops that support UK consumers’ competitive choice and affordable mobility are not explicitly included in the proposals. The UK Alliance for the Freedom of Car Repair stated:
“Great care is needed to avoid discriminating against the aftermarket.”
This is an extremely complex subject. I reiterate that I understand what the Government are trying to achieve, but I also understand the industry’s concerns. A consultation has taken place, and I hope that the Government can now offer the clarification that the industry needs as the legislation moves forward.
I hope that the Government, the industry and the petitioners can see that I have tried to take a pragmatic approach to the subject, and I hope that I have understood the issues in the time I have had to learn what this industry means to so many. It has been wonderful to meet so many enthusiastic people and learn so much, and I thank them all for three things that they have allowed me to see—their obvious joy in what they do, their professionalism, and their understanding when speaking to a layman like me.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for bringing the petition to the House. This is a really important debate, and it is important that I get my views on the record.
In 2021, the Department for Transport started a consultation on modernising vehicle standards and sought views
“on areas of vehicle standards regulation that are outdated, a barrier to innovation or not designed with new technologies and business models in mind.”
Understandably, many people, including classic car enthusiasts who restore old vehicles, have raised concerns about that, hence the petition we are discussing today. There is also great concern that the Government’s proposals could impact cars that have been adapted for racing in motorsport events. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport, that is of great concern to me and those I represent here in Westminster.
There are some facts worth raising. In 2020—noting the pandemic—approximately 56,000 people participated in motorsport events across the UK. Today, there are 720 registered motorsport clubs in the UK and approximately 5,000 motorsport events are held across the UK annually. There are millions of car owners in the UK and millions of motorsport fans, aside from those who directly compete in and support these events.
What is the Government’s position right now? The consultation proposes the creation of a number of new offences for
“tampering with a system, part or component of a vehicle intended or adapted to be used on a road.”
The Government say that such measures would enable them
“to address existing gaps in legislation, ensuring cleaner and safer vehicles.”
Of course, that is fine in principle. Reassuringly, the Minister assured the House last year that
“Department for Transport officials have been instructed to ensure that proposals do not prevent activities such as restoration, repairs or legitimate improvements to classic cars, or do any damage to the motor sports businesses involved in these activities.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2021; Vol. 702, c. 1047.]
We heard earlier just how much money is involved and how many jobs and livelihoods are at stake; the sector is really important to the UK and to our economy.
We know that modified vehicles used on the roads are currently subject to the same MOT testing as any other road vehicles, and therefore adequate safeguards are in place to ensure that these vehicles are roadworthy. That includes emissions testing, which importantly ensures that modified cars do not breach emissions standards. However, my view is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I appreciate the points that the hon. Member is making, but part of the problem in my constituency of Pontypridd and Taff Ely is illegal modifications to cars done by boy racers, who are not motorsport professionals but drag race up and down our dual carriageways, with exhausts going off, sounding like shotguns, causing real antisocial behaviour and nuisance. Those exhausts are removed before the MOT and then put back on, so, sadly, they are missed. Does the hon. Member agree that more needs to be done to try to tackle that problem?
It is really important that we do this in the right way. In my constituency of Bracknell, we have a problem with boy racers, noisy exhausts and antisocial driving; that is a real issue in my part of the world as well. The devil is in the detail, and I will come on to what I think needs to be done to reconcile the two apparently opposing poles.
My point is that we need clarification from the Government of how these new rules would be implemented. What modifications are classed as legitimate? We should also be acutely aware that these rules must not impact in any way the legitimate classic car and motorsport sectors, which we have spoken about.
The Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance recently found that the classic vehicles sector alone is worth £18.3 billion to the UK economy. The HCVA contends that cars belong to their owners and the owners have a right to repair them. We know that; it goes for all vehicles of all ages, classic and modern. The proposals may limit access to hardware and software required to maintain and repair these vehicles. Of course, the cars of today cannot become classics in the future if they are forced to rely on services from individual manufacturers that may be withdrawn.
The industry for maintaining historic vehicles and motorsport vehicles is large and globally renowned, employing highly skilled professionals—over 100,000 people, as we have heard. Much of that work, such as engine maintenance, alterations to exhaust systems and changes to engine control units, would cross over into the current definition of tampering. The proposed definition of tampering is far too broad and needs to be nailed down. It could include changing wheels and tyres, altering the body of a car, limiting access to period panels or enhancing safety. It might include lightening a car for period-correct performance or racing improvements. It might involve newer classic cars requiring changes to ECUs as fuel standards change. The definition is really broad. Ultimately, we need to ensure that new cars today that become classics in the future are still maintainable and serviceable.
So what? Having admired the problem for the last few minutes, what do we need to do, and what do I advise the Government? If the Department is determined to go ahead with this kind of anti-tamper legislation, we request, as a minimum, specific exemptions for historic and classic vehicles, as described. The legislation needs to include legal protections for owners of classic vehicles who make modifications to their cars, and for garages, engineers and those involved in the historic and classic industry who do likewise. We need to ensure that owners, engineers and the historic and classic industry have access to the tools they require in perpetuity to maintain roadworthy historic and classic vehicles. The legislation needs to include protections for classic vehicles that have been modified, so that they can still be sold, with protections for dealers, auctioneers, agents and all those involved in the sale of the cars. It must also include protections for individuals and firms who transport and deliver vehicles that have been modified.
To refer to an earlier question, how do we draw the distinction between legitimate activities and those activities that result in antisocial driving? I do not have the answer. I suspect that this may be a wicked problem where lines are difficult to define. Where is the boundary between the two poles that we have discussed? I do not know. It may be that the Department decides to drop these plans altogether. These are really difficult proposals, and they will upset many people—legitimate owners of cars who are proud of what they have in their garage. Alternatively, it may be that the Department works with Motorsport UK, the Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance, motor manufacturers, those with specialist expertise across the UK, and the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport, to ensure that we do not self-harm. I urge the Minister to make sure that we do not do ourselves real damage.
I want to begin with a confession that, these days, is increasingly socially unacceptable: I enjoy driving. I enjoy riding a motorcycle. I love petrol engine vehicles. I have three reasons for being interested in this debate: a Yamaha MT-10, a KTM 950 Supermoto and a ratty old runabout Vauxhall Corsa that I would get rid of if I had the opportunity to drive properly. I would buy a decent car, but there is no point while I am an MP. A long time ago, before I became an MP, I put some effort into becoming a decent driver, although I would not like to make any particular claims about the quality of my driving, but I did put the effort in. I enjoy my driving and I love vehicles. I like to get in a car, such as a classic 911 Club Sport that I once drove, where I could actually feel what the tyres were doing on the road, because it had mechanical steering.
As we go forward in this life, there seems to be a systematic effort to ruin motoring—to make motorcycles and cars more boring and more of a black box. We now have endless cars with electric steering, and it is impossible to feel a thing that is going on on the road. Somehow, we are losing something about what it is to be a human being who takes responsibility and cares about their relationship with a vehicle. It is an old-fashioned and increasingly unpopular point of view, but I think there is joy to be found in driving a vehicle that does not have an anti-lock braking system or traction control and has carburettors not fuel injection, but has, as is the case with the KTM, very sharp brakes. It is a great joy and pleasure to be united with a vehicle and care about how it is working on the road.
That is why I object to the idea of anti-tampering legislation. It is not because I have a problem with safety. I used to be a professional air-worthiness engineer, so I like safety; I do not like hospital food. I want to be safe and for everybody to be safe. There is no going back if someone injures another person with a vehicle. That is why I want responsible motorists and motorcyclists—people who care about how they operate their vehicle and care about what kind of vehicle they are in. The problem with this so-called anti-tampering legislation is that it will increasingly turn vehicles into black boxes, where we do not have to care. Indeed, it will be so anodyne and boring to drive the thing, and the driver will be so disconnected from the mechanics and the experience, that they will be positively discouraged from caring about the vehicle because there is no point.
In contrast to my amazing KTM 950, with its absence of electronic devices, I recently hired a car in Norway—a Volkswagen ID4. It was a lovely car in many ways. It was all electric and had cruise control and a stupid speed limiter that knows where the car is and so starts to reduce the cruise control as it gets into town. The car steers itself. When I was positioning the car on the road, it decided that it did not want to be there and suddenly jerked the steering wheel in my hand. It cannot be switched off permanently; every time I switched it off it was switched back on when I next got in the car. I would like to switch that nonsense off because I want to drive the car. I do not want the car deciding I should be two feet to the left on the road. I was once in a Tesla—with somebody else driving—that nearly put us in a hedge because it decided it wanted to be two feet to the left. The Volkswagen ID4 was not quite self-driving, but it is clear where we are going here—cars that decide how fast they go and where they are going to be on the road. I do not mind people having self-driving cars. I would not mind having a car that drove itself if it meant that I did not have to drive when it was boring—for example, when commuting to this place—but when I want to drive the car, I want to drive the car.
I am extremely concerned that this future involves a wide range of practical and philosophical problems. I do not want to trust a car to decide where it is. I remember doing 70 mph down the motorway in a Golf that had its lane assistance turned on. I went through a shadow of a tree and the car swerved because it decided it wanted to be in a different place. I was until recently a chartered aerospace engineer—I have just declined to renew my subscription—so I am not a technophobe; aeroplanes often fly themselves. However, I would like not to have to put up with the nonsense of the car deciding it wants to go at a different speed or be in a different place.
I have possibly laboured my point, but I want the Minister, who is listening carefully, to at least see one keen and passionate driver—sorry, guys—who wants to have personal responsibility as a free man. I will say it: I want to be a free man, personally in charge of what the vehicle does. I am offended by the name anti-tampering. I do not doubt that there are some irresponsible people who want to tamper with safety systems, but the point I am trying to put on the record is that even some safety systems can be dangerous—for example, when that Volkswagen Golf swerved across the road because it did not like the shadow on the dual carriageway.
We have talked about racing and custom vehicles. When it comes to minor modifications, I like to think that I do not modify my vehicles, but my MT10 has a different screen, hand guards, and luggage as well as a charging lead that I put on myself to ensure that it is trickle charged. It is modified; it has got a Scottoiler on it, so I can commute without having to constantly lubricate the chain. Many of those accessories were fitted by the dealer because he would do it at no cost, but what if I had decided to fit them? Is that tampering? Surely not—all I have done is convert one kind of Yamaha MT10 into another. People like me are afraid that we are moving into this anodyne world where we cannot even change the screen on our BMW R1200GS—as I did. We do not want to have to check the rules to see whether we can. With great respect, I am not interested in the Minister’s view about what size screen I should have on my motorcycle. I do not want to have to go and check the rules to see whether I can change it—I am now labouring the point.
As Conservatives, we should be wanting to live in a society of free and responsible individuals. We will not create or perpetuate a society of free and responsible individuals if we keep taking away from them, at every chance, the opportunity to exercise freedom responsibly and to enjoy themselves while doing that, because we make life miserable if we say to people, “Before you can fit heated grips on your motorbike, you have to go and check whether you’re allowed to.” It is too boring—it is too boring. We sit in here all the time, doing this technocratic nonsense and going up to the Committee Rooms to pass statutory instruments that most of us in this House do not even read. That is another bugbear of mine on which I have laboured another point. We are taking away people’s freedoms by using statutory instruments that we do not even read and almost never speak to. This is not where we should be going as Conservatives; we should be letting people be free. If they want to have stupid self-driving cars that steer themselves when they should not, let them, but I want to switch that off, and if the manufacturer provided it to me and I was unable to switch it off, I would like to be able to change the software so that I could switch it off and drive the car myself. I rest my case.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate Gareth James on securing 112,000—is that right?—signatures on the petition in order to get this debate. That is no mean feat in itself, so my congratulations go to him, and to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who I think looks very young indeed; he should not disparage himself. In fact, I might check out after the debate what moisturiser he uses. I congratulate him on bringing the petition to us in Parliament today. My congratulations go also to the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) on a very elegant speech. I thank him for all he does for the APPG for motorsport.
We then heard a passionate speech from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I am a big fan of the hon. Member, as he knows. We are both big Cobden fans, for different reasons possibly, but I would never describe the hon. Member as being 2 feet to the left in any situation at all, and perhaps particularly in a car. He made a great defence. As somebody who cycled here today on a Brompton—Brompton is a proud British manufacturer—I may have some different views about how sometimes I am close passed and the possibility that my life may be prolonged by speed limiters. As I canvassed yesterday in a tight marginal seat between Labour and the Conservatives in Brooklands, Trafford, I was sickened by seeing exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) pointed out—adjusted cars doing 60 to 80 mph down a road with a 30-mph limit and with modified exhausts banging out. The antisocial behaviour that that brings to our estates is appalling. I remember the Secretary of State going on the record about how he does not like that type of thing, either.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his compliments. I was once very nearly run down in High Wycombe by somebody doing just what he has suggested: they were in a modified car and going far too fast in town. Such people need prosecuting. In the case raised by the hon. Gentleman, if they are doing 80 mph where there is a 30 mph limit, they should be going to prison. I am very clear about that. I just wanted to ensure that we all understood one another.
I am grateful to the hon. Member. I love motorsport as well, and I love classic cars. There is nothing better than jumping up on my NorthRoad cycle—those bikes are produced in my constituency—cycling the 10 miles to Tatton Park, the Cheshire County Council and National Trust park, watching a traditional car show there and seeing the pride that people have in those cars. We do not want to see anything that would stop that.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his very eloquent and pragmatic speech; it is resonating with me. Does he agree that when it comes to the cars themselves, the issue is not necessarily the cars; it is the way in which they are driven? Therefore, what we need to do is to go after those who are driving irresponsibly, making noise, breaking the law and breaking the rules, rather than going after legitimate vehicle owners, who just want to look after their vehicles.
We should not be going after legitimate car owners, who take great pride in their cars, but with 40 million vehicle licences on UK roads, this plague of antisocial behaviour with these modified cars is absolutely sickening. With tens of thousands of police cut in this country, and a decimation of community policing, we now cannot police these hooligans driving their cars in the way they do. There is a philosophical debate to be had, but something needs to be done. We need to be tough on these people who are plaguing our communities.
Last year, the Government consulted on modernising vehicle standards, specifically looking at new measures to tackle tampering with vehicles. This petition came about almost immediately, with 112,000 signatures, and it managed to unite motorcyclists, classic car owners and motor racing aficionados with one voice. Despite the DFT stating that it did not intend the proposals to prevent motorsport or people repairing classic cars or motorbikes, it is keen to ensure that no businesses engaged in those pursuits are negatively affected.
The proposals seem to be a broadly positive move from Government to tackle tampering, which we know has impacts on safety and the environment. Of course, we support ensuring that emission standards are met and cannot be worked around. However, we also know that some modifications can negatively affect the safety and health of the vehicle owner, its occupants, other road users and the wider population, and that some tampering activities that prevent a vehicle’s emission system from operating correctly, such as the removal of the diesel particulate filter from a vehicle’s exhaust, can significantly increase harmful pollutant emissions, and sometimes be used as a weapon as these hooligans pass cyclists and let out a load of smoke—gassing, I think it is known as.
However, we know that the motorsport community have concerns about restoration, repairs and legitimate improvements, and their voices must be heard. The Government have said that it is not their intention to target these legitimate improvements, yet there has been no detail about how they would ensure that that will not happen. We know the consultation ended in November 2021—over six months ago—and we have not heard since that time what the Government intend to do.
I have a few questions for the Minister. When will the consultation response be published? When will the Government think about bringing legislation forward? Collectors and businesses in the aftermarket industry are being left in the dark, and we need to shed some light for them. Will changes apply retrospectively? What sort of alterations will be considered tampering? Will it just be ones that impact emissions and noise, or are wider proposals on the cards? How will they work with the motorsport and restoration industry? What steps are the Government taking to engage with stakeholders who have legitimate concerns over the changes? I would welcome answers from the Minister on this important debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, in a debate on a subject for which I have a great deal of personal adoration. This is certainly not the first time I have debated it with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport. I pay particular thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who started the whole thing off but was unable to speak in today’s debate and, most importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I hope I can reassure hon. Members following what we have heard. I have been pleased to listen to the incredibly valuable and thorough contributions that have been made. It is a privilege to be closing the debate.
Of course, the UK has a very long and proud history of companies and individuals dedicated to the modification and improvement of vehicles, whether in motorsports, professional customisation or enthusiastic owners enjoying their hobby and improving their pride and joy. That was me when I was 18 and purchased my second car, moving up from a Ford Escort 1.3L to a Peugeot 309 GTI, complete with skirts and low-profile tyres. I was partial to a whale tail, but I did not go that far.
I was able to do that because my dad helped me. He was a great engineer and I am quite sure that he learned his craft by starting out with a push-bike, moving up to a BSA Bantam and transitioning through various vehicles to a 1972 Porsche 911T, moving, I believe, from left-hand to right-hand drive. I most definitely grew up with this and I understand that many engineers hone their craft in their garage or, when it comes to motorcycles, their living room.
I agree with a lot of what I have heard today, including on the importance of ensuring that we allow for that continued healthy aftermarket for vehicle modification, and that our plans do not negatively impact on our thriving motorsports. I pay tribute to the Wigton Motor Club in my own area—I was delighted to open its new facility at Moota—and to the Rotating Wheels car show in West Lakeland. I will be adjudicating at that vintage and classic car show again this summer.
The intention behind our proposals is to prevent tampering that can have serious consequences for health and the environment. We have, however, issued a clarification that we do not intend our proposals to prevent legitimate motorsport activities, restoration, repairs or legitimate improvements to vehicles such as classic cars and motorbikes. We also do not intend our proposals to impact negatively on businesses involved in such activities.
The consultation received 7,891 responses—a large number. Their particular focus was on concerns that the proposals, as set out in the regulatory review, are too broad and would restrict any modification of vehicles, which would negatively impact on the motorsports industry, the restoration and customisation industry, classic car enthusiasts and motorcycles. We have yet to publish our response to the consultation—I will speak about that in a moment—but Members can absolutely be reassured that the proposals will not prevent all forms of vehicle modification. That is not the intention—it is certainly not my intention. We are carefully considering the scope of the policy, to ensure that it does not prevent legitimate alterations or modification, including repair work.
As the Minister with responsibility for the future of transport, my role is to ensure that we have a regulatory regime that is fit for the future and that will achieve our vision of a better, greener UK. To achieve that, we are conducting a series of regulatory reviews to consider how transport regulations need to change, to make journeys faster, safer, easier and more secure. However, I absolutely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I love driving. I have been driving for 28 years, and I hope to drive for the rest of my safe and capable life. I absolutely understand the desire to be in control of a motor vehicle.
Certain modifications, however, can negatively affect the safety and health of drivers or riders, passengers, other road users and the wider population. One such example is the modification or removal of part of the emissions system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, that can have significant consequences. If it is done because the vehicle’s performance has failed—the system can fail to boost the vehicle’s performance—it can be really serious. Removing a diesel particulate filter from a vehicle’s exhaust can increase harmful pollutant emissions by up to 1,000 times.
The risks associated with air and noise pollution, including from modified exhausts, cannot be understated. In England alone, the annual social cost of urban road noise was estimated to be between £7 billion and £10 billion in 2010.
I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning road noise. I have annoyed fellow motorcyclists by telling them that they must have lawful end-cans and exhaust systems, because nothing prejudices people against motorcycling more than noisy motorcycles with illegal cans. The problem with noisy motorcycles today is not that the lawful equipment is too noisy, but that people break the law and the law is not enforced. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind me saying that we have to enforce the law on some of these things, instead of constantly tightening up regulations and hoping that compliance will follow, because it does not. We must have reasonable regulations that people want to comply with. That is a very old principle.
That is an important point. As I have previously mentioned, my constituency has been blighted by vehicles with illegally modified exhausts speeding through our communities. Last summer, after discussions with South Wales police, it launched Operation Buena, and in just one night in Llantrisant, it issued 12 motorists with speeding fines and 10 with prohibition notices. That is completely unsustainable, and the police clearly need more resources to get on top of the matter. What conversations has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues on giving them further resources to deal with the issue?
I refer to my earlier comment on detection and how we use and improve sound-monitoring devices—noise cameras, as they are being called—to monitor those motorists who are, without a doubt, breaking the law. We recognise the health and environmental impacts of noise. They include the risk of heart attacks, strokes and dementia, and while air quality has improved since 2010, air pollution remains the top environmental risk to human health in the UK.
As vehicles increasingly become automated, new safety and security risks will be associated with making alterations to a vehicle’s integral software and sensing technologies. Already, many new vehicles offer advanced driver-assistance systems—I recognise, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe will choose not to use those—which partially automate some of the driving tasks.
With the advent of self-driving vehicles, which will allow the driver to hand over the driving task to the system, if desired, the problem becomes even more acute. These highly sophisticated systems will have taken years to develop. Even a minor modification could significantly affect an automated vehicle’s operation and, if done badly, would have the potential to kill its occupants and other road users.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell referred to the MOT test. The challenge is that we cannot rely on that alone. The MOT test is an important part of ensuring that vehicles on our roads are safe and roadworthy, but there are inevitably limitations to what can be assessed through a relatively simple static inspection of a vehicle. When it comes to automation and self-driving technologies, it becomes even more challenging for sufficient checks to be carried out to guard against dangerous or illegal modifications. I trust that Members can see that it is essential that we have the powers to respond to advances in vehicle construction and operation, to target and prevent dangerous and inappropriate tampering, which could put people’s lives at risk.
I will write to my hon. Friend with more specific details of the timeframe. I can certainly say that we will publish our response to the consultation this summer—it will be a matter of a few months, rather than having to wait any longer. In answer to another of his questions, the changes will not be retrospectively applied.[Official Report, 10 May 2022, Vol. 714, c. 2MC.]
We have listened carefully to the concerns raised by the e-petition through our consultation on the subject. We recognise the importance of striking an appropriate balance between allowing for legitimate modifications and ensuring that we have the powers to tackle those that are dangerous and inappropriate. We are absolutely not proposing that all modifications be prevented. We recognise that vehicle owners and businesses may have many legitimate reasons to modify a vehicle, and our intention is to ensure that we maintain a thriving aftermarket including motorsports, restoration, repairs and other legitimate improvements and alterations to vehicles.
We are considering all the responses received during the consultation. As I say, we will publish a consultation response, in which we will summarise those responses and set out our next steps, in the summer.
Over the past 60 years, cleaner, safer and more accessible transport has transformed people’s lives for the better. The Government are committed to maximising the benefits and minimising the risks of new technological advances. The broad programme of work we have launched will help us to ensure that our regulatory framework is flexible and forward-looking so that we can foster innovation, safeguard the public and bring the most benefit to transport users and society, while recognising our rich cultural and industrial heritage in motor vehicles, which dates back to the late 1800s. It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate.
Thank you for chairing this debate, Sir George. I thank the Minister for her response, as well as everybody who has actively contributed today. It has been an extremely good debate. I thank the petitioner, Gareth, for starting the petition, as well as the 112,000 people who signed it and the 7,891 people who responded to the consultation.
From the Minister’s response, it seems that the Government have actually listened to the petitioners. It is a win for the Petitions Committee and the petitioner, but also for the entire industry and all the people at home who love tampering with cars, as we have called it. It has been a great debate and I thank everyone who has been involved.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 600954, relating to vehicle tampering offences.
[David Mundell in the Chair]
I have been made aware that there are active appeal proceedings relating the subject of one of the e-petitions that will be debated, relating to convictions for being in charge of a dog dangerously out of control. Brief factual references to the existence of those proceedings are permissible in the debate, but Members should be mindful of the sub judice resolution and matters that are still before the courts.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 552017 and 584076, relating to hunting.
Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) is unable to attend the debate as planned, so I am moving the motion on behalf of the Petitions Committee to ensure that this important debate can take place. As I am not able to stay for the remainder of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has kindly agreed to cover some of the areas that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea would have raised in her speech.
Thank you, Mr Mundell, for being in the Chair for this important debate. I thank the Petitions Committee and its Chair for ensuring that this matter can be debated in the Chamber. I also thank the hundreds of my constituents in York Central who have signed the petitions before us. They are exceptional at demanding higher protections for animals, not least in respect of foxes savaged by hunts and hare coursing. I have long campaigned to uphold animal welfare standards, and today is no exception. I thank the League Against Cruel Sports and Keep The Ban for their tireless work in exposing this offensive pursuit.
The Hunting Act 2004 should have been the end. Back then, the Labour Government responded to the popular demand to end hunting with hounds. We acted to end this animal cruelty, but the bugles and beagles were not silenced for long. The hunts, of which there were nearly 300 in England and Wales, were not deterred by the penalty system, and it now appears that they were never intended to be. They were soon riding again, under the smokescreen of trail hunting, which was designed to put those investigating the hunts off their scent. The hunts never intended to stop; they said as much when the legislation passed.
The saboteurs and organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports and Keep The Ban have exposed how terriermen were present at 78% of hunts. Those are the people who dig out foxes as they seek refuge. If the fox is not going to be killed, there is no need to dig it out. In 2020, evidence came to light from the leaked Hunting Office report and Masters of Foxhounds Association report of online Zoom webinars, exposing how hunts were making meticulous plans to use the 2004 Act to deflect from this bloodthirsty obsession.
I am glad that some landowners have responded, and I call on all landowners to institute a ban on their land. There has been only one prosecution for permitting a hunt on land that was known to be in breach of the law. While there are temporary suspensions, such as those by Forestry England and the National Trust, they must become bans. The Ministry of Defence has still issued licences. I call on the Minister to ensure that the Government come to one position on this issue. She must ensure that there is a consistent ban on any public land being used for hunts. I hope she will commit to that today in her response.
The 2004 Act has resulted in 448 prosecutions and 228 convictions for crimes involving hunting with dogs, and 47 prosecutions and 16 convictions for hare coursing. However, without a complete ban on hunting, foxes and hares will be targeted. Although Mr Hankinson, a director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was convicted last October after being found guilty of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on foxhunting, the deterrents are insufficient and the law continues to be broken. I also understand that on 6 July Mr Hankinson will be appealing the decision against him.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is my co-conspirator on bringing Great British Railways to York for its headquarters. Does she agree that it is possible—perfectly possible—and reasonable to hunt within the law, using trail hunting, and that therefore, although we condemn a situation in which the law has been broken, it is possible to carry out this activity within the law and indeed the legislation allows for that?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing that point forward. I would have said yes in 2004, but trust has been betrayed, which is an issue I will come on to later. Therefore, I would have to say today that the answer is no.
I was speaking about the judgment regarding Mr Hankinson. I appreciate that this matter could be sub judice, but I just want to draw Members’ attention today to what Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram said when he was outlining his conclusions in the initial court case last autumn:
“I am sure that the defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt with dogs. In my judgement he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for illegal hunting.”
For that, Mr Hankinson received a fine of £1,000, along with having to make a contribution of £2,500 in legal costs.
As we have seen in other areas of law, penalties for breaches are insufficient for those who are part of the elite. During the cub-hunting autumn season alone, there were 115 reported incidents and 2019-20 saw a total of 485 reports of incidents. These incidents are not rare; they are occurring on an industrial scale.
The Countryside Alliance blames bad law, but the reality is that whether we like the law or not and whether it is good or bad, we have to have to obey it. That message is resounding in the public square at present. Lawbreakers cannot hide behind excuses but must face a penalty, although it is evident that the penalty is too soft, as they continuously and deliberately break the law, for all the weaknesses that may be within it.
Hunts have betrayed the trust placed in them to stay within the spirit and letter of the law and stay away from foxes, so the law must change and a complete ban on trail hunting must ensue. There must be no exemptions, no loopholes and no excuses. The hunts have only themselves to blame for this, having tried to bend and stretch the law.
The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way again. Does she agree that if she had her way, then—given that foxhounds do not make good family pets—thousands of foxhounds up and down the country would have to be destroyed humanely, because the hunts could not afford to keep them if they did not have their participation in the trail hunting?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying and, as I said previously, we are in this situation because trust has been betrayed. I do not accept that those hounds have to be put down. However, we have to move forward. We are now at the point where people have deliberately obfuscated the law and I think the time has come when we cannot tolerate people—quite frankly—laughing at this place, which has really tried to improve the situation and move forward by giving that scope and flexibility for trail hunting. However, as we see time and again, trail hunting turns into real hunting and therefore I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman.
With 85% of the population believing that all forms of hunting foxes should be illegal, Parliament cannot stand by when the loopholes in the legislation are being exploited to perpetrate wildlife crime. The Hunting Act 2004 needs amending and those who stand in its way must be brought to account. If Natural Resources Wales has introduced a ban on its land, there is no excuse for the Minister. She needs to ensure that she is leading, not waiting for the hunt lobby to craft more reasons for delay, dither and indecision.
However, this is about not just foxes, but hares. The League Against Cruel Sports found that in 2019-20, there were 102 reports of suspected illegal interference with badger setts, animal worrying—an issue that has been debated of late in Parliament—and even pet interference. The second petition before us today concerns Mini the cat, who was literally hounded to death—chased and killed in a quiet residential area. Poor Mini was mauled outside her home, but the penalty under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was just £1,600. After the kill, the hunt tried to hide their cruelty by slinging little Mini over a fence, but they were caught. This very day, John Sampson, the person responsible for the death of Mini, has had his guilty conviction upheld in the courts in Truro. The nation has taken Mini to their hearts, and are demanding Mini’s law—the public and animal safety Bill—as there has to be a simpler course to justice. Sadly, Mini was not a one-off: on average, another Mini is taken by hunts every fortnight.
People are also endangered. Banning hunts from residential and other public areas is necessary, which is why I believe a blanket ban by Government will increase the consistency of protection. Currently, the Dogs Act 1871 is relied on, but proof needs to come to light that the hounds were out of control, which is no easy thing to evidence. As we bring forward legislation, we need to ensure it is easy to apply, and to provide the necessary evidence. We are coming to the end of this parliamentary Session, after which a new one will begin. Banning trail hunting and hunting on public land and in residential areas would show a commitment to animal wellbeing and protect those most majestic of all animals, foxes. A simple and small amendment to the Hunting Act 2004 is all that is required. We stand ready to bring in this ban and end this barbarism once and for all.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. I say gently to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who I know has a very kind heart, that if she got what she wanted, anywhere between 9,000 and 18,000 hounds would be put down. I hope she will reconsider her thoughts on that basis.
I remember when the Hunting Act 2004 was passed, which banned intentional hunting of mammals with dogs. I was a teller, and I was in the Chamber when Tony Banks decided to amend Alun Michael’s Bill, which would have licensed hunting. Banks wanted a total ban, and the Secretary of State climbed along the Back Benches to where he was sitting, which was right in the middle of the Chamber. On seeing this, Nicholas Soames called on the Speaker to protect the hon. Gentleman. Banks replied that he could look after himself. As a result, he pressed his amendment, and we got the ban on intentional hunting. That was the conclusion of hundreds of hours of debate, amendments and emotion, and we ended up with an Act that the Government promised not to revisit. Despite not hunting myself, I would like the opportunity to repeal that Act. However, I accept that the Government have promised not to touch it in this Parliament.
Trail hunting or drag hunting is where an artificial scent is laid down for hounds to follow. It is usually a rag dipped in scent, often aniseed, and it is an entirely legal alternative to hunting. It is overwhelmingly practised in this way throughout the country. There are, as I think the hon. Member for York Central mentioned, 300 packs of hounds in this country, some of which are in my constituency. With the owner’s permission, they follow a drag or trail over land and feed their hounds on fallen livestock—calves that are born dead or cows that die—which is a tremendous help to farmers, who face bills for the removal of their fallen stock at a time when margins are tight.
The debate encompasses two separate petitions. The first calls on Forestry England to stop granting licences for fox and hare hunts. Over the most recent hunting season, it is reported that Forestry England granted 34 licences for trail hunts. The tsunami of lawbreaking that the petition suggests does not appear to have taken place. The petition states:
“Despite hunting wild mammals with dogs being illegal, two of the licensed/previously licensed trail hunts have been associated with convictions under the Hunting and Animal Welfare Acts.”
Being “associated with” seems a bit thin. However, there is another issue with that assertion: no fox and hare hunts are licensed by Forestry England. The only hunting that is licensed is trail hunting. Furthermore, no licensed hunt has ever been convicted of a Hunting Act offence while operating on Forestry England’s land. The premise of the petition is therefore misleading. Good people have been encouraged to sign something that is deliberately designed to mislead them.
The petition harks back to the awful, bigoted, hate-filled nature of the debate on hunting, which always comes back to class war. It may be triggered by people feeling that they are being looked down on by people sitting on horses—I do not know. It is constantly fed with inflammatory stories that are designed to upset kind-hearted, generous animal owners so that they fund nasty and sinister groups.
Forestry England is a public body with the freedom to decide what activity takes place on its land. It can rightly suspend or stop events if illegal activity takes place, meaning that decisions are left in the hands of those who can decide the correct course of action on a case-by-case basis, instead of political activists. Once again, we see pressure being brought to bear or bullying. In reality, it is just another attack on rural people.
The second petition relates to Mini’s law. This is a very sad case. Last year, a domestic cat named Mini was killed by dogs in a residential area. Even the most malicious campaigner is not claiming that that was deliberate. It was an accident—deeply regrettable, but an accident. The petition states that such an incident is reported once every two weeks, as the hon. Member for York Central mentioned. However, the anti-hunting group Keep The Ban, which is endorsed by the League Against Cruel Sports, suggests that in 2019, there were actually 29 incidents—not one every two weeks. Once again, good people are being misled in order to feed prejudices and anger, which is bad for everyone.
Happily, there are 12 million domestic cats in this country. Some 27% of households own one. Cats Matter, a feline campaign group, estimates that, sadly, 230,000 cats are killed each year by car alone, as are hundreds of thousands of foxes—not to mention the cats killed each year by dogs. On the premise of the petition, should we also ban cars and dogs? Of course not. There must be balance when addressing this emotive topic but, sadly, that is rarely the case.
The lobby groups and saboteurs that feed off the subject would have people believe that every hunt and every pack of hounds are lawbreakers. That is wrong. As with any lawful activity, it is possible to break the law. Offences that do take place are prosecuted accordingly. The possibility of lawbreaking is not used as a reason to prohibit other lawful activities. Therefore petitions such as these need to be rejected.
Each year, thousands of people attend Boxing day meets such as the one in Ledbury. It is a tradition that has been going on longer than records show. However, last Christmas, the local town council came under pressure to try to ban the meeting in the centre of town. Thankfully, a vociferous majority came out in defence of the meet.
Hunting is about liberty and livelihood for rural people. It is a chance to meet and enjoy traditions passed down through generations. The class warriors are out of date. They choose to mislead and spin. What better proof is there that they are wrong? We must continue to support the rule of law and not be bullied by those who find the truth inconvenient.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who is no longer in her place, and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for opening the debate and raising some important points. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) made some interesting points. It is good that we keep talking as communication is really important in understanding where everyone is coming from.
We are here today because e-petition 552017 received more than 104,000 signatures from local people across the UK, and e-petition 584076 received more than 101,000. That is a lot of people committed to animal welfare, doing the right thing and maintaining and enhancing the protections in law for cruelty against animals. I do not plan to keep colleagues in the Chamber longer than necessary; I am sure that with votes coming up, nobody else wants to stay too long either. However, I want to ensure that a couple of points are on the record.
Members will know that e-petition 552017 asks Her Majesty’s Government to stop Forestry England issuing licences for trail hunting. Forestry England is a public body and in 2019-20 it issued 34 licences for trail hunting. Since 2020, licences have been suspended pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. E-petition 584076 seeks greater protection for pets and animals from hunts, following the mauling to death of Mini the cat. That mauling involved huntsman John Sampson, who was found guilty in December. The petition follows a campaign involving the likes of Action Against Foxhunting and I pay tribute to the campaigners for their tenacity, care and compassion.
Colleagues will know that despite the Hunting Act 2004, foxhunting has continued in England and Wales under the guise of trail hunting. That fact was recently exposed by the conviction of Mark Hankinson, now a former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, for intentionally encouraging or assisting others to break the Hunting Act 2004, in the case of R v. Hankinson. Despite its exposure as a cover for illegal hunting, the Ministry of Defence still licenses trail hunting on its own land, with at least 259 days of hunting licensed during the 2021-22 hunting season. We all know that those hunts regularly cause havoc in the countryside, terrorising wild animals, pets—as we have already heard—and people as well as disrupting infrastructure such as railway lines and major roads.
The simple fact is that hunting with dogs has continued despite the ban, with weaknesses in the Hunting Act 2004 abused by those claiming to conduct trail hunting or exempt hunting. The Hunting Act was one of Labour’s greatest achievements, and we will continue to stand by it every day. Indeed, we went on to live those values by attempting to improve and amend the Agriculture Bill, but we were not able to persuade Conservative Members to vote with us. Enough is enough. The Hunting Act 2004 must be strengthened and trail hunting must be banned on Government and all publicly owned or managed land. For many years now, Labour, through successive shadow Environment Secretaries, and animal welfare campaigners, such as the League Against Cruel Sports, have said that trailing is a smokescreen designed to disguise the hunt’s true activity. We need to call that out.
I am grateful to the league for its work, and its helpful briefing ahead of the debate. It made clear that during the last full hunting season for which data is available, it received 485 reports of suspected illegal hunting relating to 110 different hunts in England, Scotland and Wales. In addition, during the 2021 cub hunting season, which is euphemistically described as the autumn hunting, the league received 115 reports of suspected illegal cub hunting. The league acknowledges, as I do, that those figures are reliant on eyewitness reports, so we can fairly assume that they are just the tip of the iceberg. Like many in the Opposition, I am concerned by the lack of transparency and how rules that apply to all are being played by a few as they seek to work their way around the law.
We need action and we need this Government to stand up and be counted. We need to stop public land being used by those seeking to play around with the rules. Despite the exposure of trail hunting as a smokescreen for illegal hunting, the Government have continued to allow and license trail hunting on Government land—particularly land owned by the Ministry of Defence. In a written question about the impact of trail hunting on MOD land, the Defence Secretary went as far as to defend trail hunting as a legal activity. Trail hunting is currently suspended on Forestry England land, which is one thing, but that is not enough. Forestry England, as the Minister knows, is a public body that reports to her Department. It is England’s largest land manager and looks after 1,500 of the nation’s woods and forests.
Since news of the Hunting Office’s leaked webinar emerged in 2020, Forestry England has suspended trail hunting licences but has yet to ban trail hunting permanently. What discussions has the Minister had with the leadership at Forestry England about the issue? I pay tribute to the National Trust, Natural Resources Wales, the Malvern Hills Trust, and Cheshire West and Chester Council, which are among those that have seen through the hunt’s smokescreen and have permanently banned it from their land. Could the Minister, if possible, touch on what discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on the matter?
In the 17 years since the Hunting Act 2004 came into force under a progressive Labour Government, many in the hunting community have been determined to circumvent the Act, and since 2010 they have largely succeeded. Trail hunting was invented in 2005 as a means of exploiting loopholes and enforcement challenges. Recent criminal proceedings have demonstrated how trail hunting has been used as a cover for illegal hunting. However, the Government have repeatedly talked down the prospect of addressing the gap in legislation. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report in August 2021 recommended that the UK Government review the Hunting Act and its exemptions to improve the ability of police to enforce the Act. Her Majesty’s Government have yet to respond to that recommendation, so can the Minister let me know when she will launch the review? I would be happy jointly with the Minister to sponsor a booking in Portcullis House for a launch, which would be great. Some cross-party consensus would be a fantastic thing.
A 2021 green paper from Act Now For Animals, a coalition of 50 animal welfare charities, recommended that the Government end trail hunting on their land and strengthen the Hunting Act 2004. It recommended removing exemptions in section 1 that are being exploited and introducing the possibility of custodial sentences for breaches of the Act. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, hon. Members who have spoken and those who signed the two petitions. Labour will continue pushing for strong observance of the law and proper and effective animal welfare policies, and will keep holding this Government to account.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Mundell, and I want to thank hon. Friends and Members. There is only a small crowd in the Chamber, but we have had some quite feisty views and some friendly but opposing views. I thank those involved from the Petitions Committee as well.
Today’s debate relates to two petitions that have been signed by enough people to secure a debate. The issue is obviously an important one for us to discuss. I will start with the Hunting Act 2004. The Act makes it an offence to hunt a wild animal with dogs, except when it is carried out in accordance with the exemptions in the Act, and it completely bans hare coursing. Hare coursing has been mentioned a few times, but all hon. Members will know that we are also making a sensible and well-supported amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will genuinely help as regards any hare coursing. That is a positive step—I digress slightly, but it is important to note that.
The penalty for illegal hunting is an unlimited fine, and the Government take all wildlife crime extremely seriously. Enforcement of the Hunting Act is an operational matter for the police. Between 2005 and 2019, 887 individuals were prosecuted under the Act, of whom 514 individuals were found guilty, so, in its present form, the Act is fit for purpose and is being enforced. As we have heard, this Government made a manifesto commitment that they would make no changes to the Hunting Act in this Parliament. Trail hunting is a legal recreational activity following a pre-laid trail, and we heard a good description from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) about how it operates. It should not involve pursuing live quarry—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I will pick up where I left off, rather than going right back to the beginning of my speech. I had just got on to what trail hunting is and was explaining that it is a legal recreational activity, following a pre-laid trail. As it should not involve pursuing live quarry, it is not specifically covered by the Hunting Act.
We recognise that it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may occasionally pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the hunt staff to control their hounds—and, if necessary, stop the hounds—as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. I think it was clearly stated by Members on both sides of the Chamber that there are over 300 hunts in this country, and many of them are involved in the completely legal recreational activity of trail hunting.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I will just reiterate what I said: there are parameters for what trail hunting is; it is a legal recreational activity, and it must be carried out in the right way. The data that we have received suggests that it is being carried out in the right way; where it is not, it obviously needs to be cracked down on. That is not the Government’s job; it is the job of the police.
Issuing a licence or giving permission for trail hunting is an operational matter for the landowner; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not play a role. Although it is called licensing, it is really an arrangement with the landowner and the hunt; the landowner comes to their own arrangement as to whether they want the hunt to proceed over their land. Different public sector landowners take different approaches to managing their land. That said, of course, other DEFRA Ministers and I continue to engage with interested parties through meetings and correspondence, and we obviously listen to everybody’s views and discuss matters of concern.
The first petition mentioned today relates to the Forestry Commission in England. Trail hunting in the nation’s forests was suspended by Forestry England following a police investigation leading to the conviction of a former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association. It remains suspended until the Forestry England board takes a decision on its future, which is for that board to do.
Does the Minister agree that it is rather ironic that the Labour party campaigned against the privatisation of the Forestry Commission because it wanted public access to its land, and now it is saying that people should not have access to that land to carry out a perfectly legal activity?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment. As ever, he is on the ball with his comments, as he was on the point about the 18,000 hounds that might have to be put down if the activity of hunting did not proceed.
I also want to touch on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire, who spoke as a true countryman with a great deal of experience and knowledge. I think he said that he does not himself hunt—nor do I—but the expertise he brings to the table and his knowledge of rural affairs are very important when we are talking about these issues. I just wanted to put that on the record.
In my contribution, I posed the question of why Forestry England has imposed this temporary ban but the MOD has not. There appears to be inconsistency across the public estate as to whether hunts have access, and I wondered whether the Minister could clear up that matter.
I do not think it is a matter of me clearing it up. It is within the gift of these organisations to decide whether or not they want to come to arrangements with hunts, and Forestry England has obviously suspended this activity—as have a number of other organisations, such as the National Trust and the Malvern Hills Trust—and will be looking into it. Quite a range of people have decided to take that action.
I will now turn to the second petition we are considering today, which relates to the distressing incident in Cornwall concerning Mini, a rescue cat of 14 years. I am an owner of two cats, and I do not know how I would survive without them, so I can understand how awfully upsetting and emotional this incident was.
The Government are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, and clearly many people in this country support the direction we are taking on animal welfare. We published our action plan for animal welfare in May 2021, which lays out the breadth of animal and conservation reforms—both legislative and non-legislative —that the Government are taking forward to ensure high standards of welfare for all animals, whether farm animals, pets or wild animals.
The passing of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 delivered on the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce tougher penalties for animal cruelty. The Act’s new maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine will apply to animal cruelty offences, including causing unnecessary suffering, and is a significant step forward in improving animal welfare. The Act has received overwhelming support. Indeed, I worked on these issues as a Back Bencher, and many Members present have been working on them for many years, so I am really proud that they have now come through in our manifesto commitment and in legislation.
I fully understand the upset and anger felt by Mini’s owners at this awful incident. I understand that the hounds involved in the incident were being exercised—we have hounds going through our village regularly on exactly the same kind of outing, to give them exercise—and were not hunting at the time. There are already several pieces of legislation that can be used to prevent such incidents and to protect the public and companion animals from dogs. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 makes it an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control in any place; there is the possibility of unlimited fines, or even imprisonment, for offences under that Act. In addition, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 includes community protection notices to enable the police and local authorities to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. Local authorities also have powers to make public space protection orders under the 2014 Act to exclude dogs from certain areas or insist that they are kept on leads.
I want to draw attention to today’s ruling, because it is a landmark one: I understand that this is the first time a conviction has happened under the Dangerous Dogs Act where a dog has attacked another animal. Does the Minister agree that it is important for the breadth of the Act to be brought into full force when such instances as the taking of Mini’s little life occur?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Yes, today—we are allowed to speak about it now, Mr Mundell, are we not?—the appeal was refused. Judge Simon Carr said:
“It is a fact specific decision we are quite sure these dogs were dangerously out of control and in these circumstances the appeal against conviction is refused.”
That is very strong, as the hon. Lady said, and rightly so. I believe that the legislation has been used in the right way.
One other question was asked by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), which I think was about the potential review. In 2018, DEFRA was looking at the Hunting Act, but that was shelved. We now have a manifesto commitment not to amend the Act, which she is well aware of. We will not change our mind about that. A powerful statement about that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire.
No one has mentioned in the debate the important economic impact that legal hunting has in rural communities. The farriers, the horse breeders, the people who service the horse boxes—a whole variety of people—rely on legal hunting for their incomes and livelihoods. If we were to ban trail hunting more widely, people would be put out of work as a direct result.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. We should not forget it. I used to be an environment correspondent down in the west country, and I was there during the full throes of all the debates about hunting. I did not know that much about the economic impacts when I started, but I certainly learned a great deal, particularly in places such as Exmoor, where there are not many other places to gain income. There is tourism, of course, but hunting has a big impact on tourism, with people having their horses in stabling, and all the catering, accommodation and everything else it brings. That is a valid point. It has to be operated. Legally, we have put in requirements for the safe operation of trail hunting and so forth. Carried out in the right way, hunting is still valuable to the rural economy. Similarly, a good point was made about the fact that the fallen stock from agriculture goes to the hounds. If that were not so, that would create a problem. There are so many possible knock-on effects.
I realise that there are strong views on every side— I thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members for their input, and I thank those who signed the petition—but there is a clear consensus that the ban on hunting with dogs must remain, and this Government have committed to not amending the Hunting Act. Forestry England has responded to breaches of its trail hunting permissions and, as I said, all trail hunting on its land is currently suspended. It is very much an operational matter for Forestry England to decide how it wants to proceed. It will do so shortly, at one of its meetings.
As I hope I have demonstrated, protection for members of the public and their companion animals is already covered by several appropriate pieces of legislation, including on dangerous dogs. Another interesting point was made: as I said, I have two cats and we have hounds exercising through our village, but one of my previous cats was killed by a car. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire raised the issue of the other awful incidents that can wipe out some of our pets.
I hope that I have made it clear that we have appropriate legislation to cover incidents in which dogs act dangerously. Those found guilty under such Acts are subject to the full force of the law, and rightly so.