HC Deb 12 March 1924 vol 170 cc2336-41

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the operation of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, in respect of animals kept in captivity or confinement and released for the purpose of being hunted or coursed. This is a Bill which will bring about, I hope, a very urgent improvement in the existing law in relation to the protection of animals. The Protection of Animals Act of 1911 is the standard Act of Parliament bearing upon this important matter, and it is one which expressly exempted from its penalties the coursing or hunting of any captive animal, unless such animal is liberated in an injured, mutilated or exhausted condition. That Act was followed by an amending Act passed in the year 1921, and in this short amending Act of 1921 there was a provision which made illegal the coursing or hunting of an animal in an enclosed space from which it has no reasonable chance of escape. This provision that was made by Parliament in 1921 for the protection of defenceless animals has proved to be almost altogether inadequate, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is interested in the passage of the Measure which I ask leave to introduce.

The Royal Society has been hampered in its beneficent work by the interpretation placed upon the Act of 1921. They find that prosecutions which appear to be very necessary often prove futile, and I shall call the attention of the House to a case which arose in my own town of Plymouth in the year 1922, illustrating the difficulties of the society. On the 15th February of that year 200 people were present at what was called rabbit coursing. There were 44 dogs upon the field and 43 rabbits were coursed. Out of the 43 not one escaped. The evidence showed that sometimes a rabbit had to by "touched up" to make it run at all, and that in several cases two dogs got one rabbit at the same time, with the result that there was a tug-of-war. Bookmakers were present, and their operations, no doubt added to the pleasantries of this festive afternoon, but after all this evidence had been given the magistrates felt compelled to dismiss the summons, because they thought there was a doubt as to whether the rabbits had a reasonable chance of escape. This took place in Plymouth, but I believe that if hon. Members who are interested in the matter make inquiries, they will find the same difficulties arise in other parts of the country. I prefer to speak of cases of which I have some personal knowledge.

One difficulty which has arisen is that by the interpretation placed upon the Act of 1921, the words, "a reasonable chance of escape," are taken to refer not to escape from the dogs, but to escape from the enclosed space where the animals have been coursed. It reminds one of the saying that an Act of Parliament has no sense of its own, but only the sense which is put into it, and that that is precious little sometimes. With the comparative failure of the Act of 1921, rabbit coursing with all its attendant barbarities, has been developing in every part of the country, and many hon. Members have had their attention drawn to the fact that it has been extending on a very wide scale in the neighbourhood of London and in the Southern counties. The Bill which I have the honour to submit seeks to repeal the Act of 1921, and to establish one simple principle. It will impose penalties on the hunting or coursing of any animal which has been kept in captivity or confinement for the purpose of being coursed or hunted, and Clause 3 provides that the penalty shall not apply to the hunting or coursing of any animal which has been kept in confinement, if it be proved that such animal has been released from such confinement at least eight days before the day on which such hunting or coursing takes place. I ask the attention of hon. Members to the fact that this Bill applies not only to the coursing of rabbits, but to the hunting of carted stags. [Interruption.] It is the purpose of the Society to deal just as effectively with the hunting of the carted stag as with the coursing of rabbits. From the interruptions I gather that the criticism made against this Bill is that it does not go far enough. If hon. Members assist me in the passing of a Bill which deals with this particular evil, I shall be very glad to co-operate with them in any Measure which seeks to put an end to all detested sport Which finds its pleasures in another's pain. May I further point out that a Bill came before this House in 1906 almost in this form, and upon the back of that Bill was the name of the present Prime Minister?

The law as it stands now is in a most anomalous condition. Nearly 100 years ago a law was passed to stop the baiting of animals, but it was decided in 1874 by the Judges of the High Court that the term "baiting" could not apply in the case of a rabbit, but only where the animal was attacked with violence and where it had the power to protect itself. We are therefore left in this position, that the bear or the badger or the rat, or any animal which can defend itself is protected by the law, but the rabbit which is defenceless against its natural enemies has no real protection from the law at all. I do not think that Members of this House will be inclined to resist this Bill on the ground that it interferes with sport. To use the term "sport" in this connection is an abuse of language. I am desirous, if I can—and I have associated with me members of all parties in the House—to put an end to spectacles of the kind I have mentioned organised for gain, which would probably not continue at all were it not for the presence of the bookmakers. The Press has been interested in this matter, notably the "Daily News" and the "Daily Mirror" and other sections of the Press as well, and I think some hon. Members have had before them details of the sickening cruelty which is carried on. I do not understand the mind of anyone who can read those details without a feeling of indignation against those responsible. We should have less anger if we heard that those who organised these so-called sporting spectacles for what is virtually blood money had themselves been horsewhipped, or that a few bookmakers had been shot. There is reason for amazement as well as anger that while we pride ourselves on having got rid of cock fighting and bear baiting a century ago and condemn the bull fights of Spain, we should allow this kind of thing to continue. All parties are giving support of this Bill, which has also the backing of the Royal Society. I was a little disappointed that the Government in answer to my question last week could not give any assurance of support, but I hope there will be such an endorsement of this proposal in all parts of the House, that this simple Bill may be carried into law. I recognise that there are other sports which ought to be dealt with, but I hope that will not interfere with the passing of this particular Measure. I believe the real remedy is Never to blend our pleasure or our pride With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels. If it be said that I am appealing to sentiment, I am glad I am able to invoke in support of this proposal the expressions of such men as Robert Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Browning and Thomas Hardy. With such support and with these names I submit the Bill to the House.




Does the hon. Member rise to oppose the Bill?


I do, Sir, and I do so, not because I am in any sense antagonistic to the principle underlying the Bill, but for the simple reason that the Bill in itself does not go far enough, and draws a distinction between the sport which is pursued by the working man and the sport which is pursued by rich people. Let us see upon what ground the hon. Member who submitted this Bill distinguishes between the sport of the working man who courses rabbits and the sport of other people who course hares. As far as I can gather an animal which has been caged for a certain period is not, under this Bill, to be pursued by dogs. Does the cruelty then depend upon the fact of the animal having been caged? No, the cruelty begins, in the case of any animal, as soon as the animal senses danger and feels that the dogs are after it. That is where the real cruelty begins. The animal's terror starts at the instant it senses the danger, and that cruelty begins, in the case of the hare, at that point just as it begins in the case of the rabbit at that point. Cruelty is involved when dogs begin to chase a hare, or a fox or a stag. If the hon. Member desires to go into all forms of cruelty he will find that some of us are quite willing to support him, but we cannot do so if he proposes to deal with only I one form of cruelty, knowing perfectly well that, if he includes the others in his Bill, those who have promised to support him as regards the rabbit coursing will withdraw their support and will oppose a measure applied to hares and foxes also. While I would readily support a Bill which had for its object the stopping of the coursing of hares, of fox hunting or deer stalking, I will be no party to the passing of a little Bill of this description which is simply playing into the hands of a large section of this House at the expense of the very few people in this country who do these things to which the hon. Member referred. I would vote to-morrow to putting them all to an end, but I will be no party to discriminating on the lines of the Bill.

Viscountess ASTOR

You are frightened of the miners.


The sport of the miners is better than the sport of your class. Do not you insult the working-class?


The hon. Member must not remain standing when I am on my feet.


I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I did not intend to do that, but I cannot help protesting when I hear these insults.


Will the hon. Member be good enough to address the Chair. Then, I am sure, he will not make remarks of that sort when I am standing.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Foot, Mr. Edmund Harvey, Mr. Hobhouse, Miss Jewson, Mr. Lansbury, Sir Robert Newman, Mr. Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Philip Richardson, Sir Leslie Scott, Mr. Scrymgeour, Mr. Vivian, and Mrs. Wintringham.