HC Deb 24 October 1975 vol 898 cc891-919

'This Act shall continue in force until 31st July 1980 and shall then expire unless Parliament by affirmative resolutions of both Houses otherwise determines; and upon the expiration of this Act the law existing immediately prior to the coming into force of this Act shall again operate as though this Act had not been passed.'.—[Sir David Renton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.6 a.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

May I take it that it would be convenient to the House, and that it has your approval, Mr. Speaker, for us to discuss at the same time new Clause 7—Application of section 1—and the following amendments:

No. 1, in Clause 1, page 1, line 5, at beginning insert— 'Subject to the provisions of section (Application of section 1) of this Act'. No. 11, in Clause 2, page 1, line 14, leave out from 'on' to end of line 15 and insert: 'such day, not being earlier than six months from the date of the passing of this Act, as the Secretary of State may by order appoint, and different days may be appointed under this section for the coming into force of this Act in different areas. (4) The power of the Secretary of State to make orders under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument and any statutory instrument containing such an order shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament'. No. 12, in page 1, line 14, leave out 'one month' and insert 'twelve months'.

The three amendments stand together.

Mr. Speaker


Sir David Renton

I am much obliged, Mr. Speaker.

The effect of new Clause 3 is plain from its terms. I should explain that new Clause 3, new Clause 7 and the three amendments are all based upon the assumption, whether a valid one or not, that the Bill will one day receive the Royal Assent. Of course, whether it does so depends upon economic and political circumstances which it would be out of order for me to invite the House to discuss. At any rate, for the purposes of these new clauses and amendments, that is the position.

The effect of new Clause 3 would be to give the Act a clear run for five hare coursing seasons. Then, all that would be needed for it to continue in force indefinitely, if the House and another place considered that it should be continued indefinitely, would be the passing of an Affirmative Resolution in both Houses. I shall have more to say about new Clause 3 later.

The effect of new Clause 7 would be to allow local option to operate on a district basis in much the same way as there is local option in Wales for the Sunday opening of pubs. It is not dissimilar from the way in which for many years we have had local option concerning Sunday cinemas.

I find the suggestion of local option most attractive. I hope that the supporters and opponents of the Bill will also find it so, because it involves the exercise of local democracy, community politics and public participation which is just what we want. Let the people decide for themselves in this controversial matter which is said to be socially divisive, not as between the upper and lower strata of society, but socially divisive in a vertical manner. Therefore, I believe that there is a great deal to commend new Clause 7. I shall say no more about the matter, but I understand that some of my hon. Friends will deploy the case for it more fully.

I turn to the effects of Amendments Nos. 1, 11 and 12 which, as I have said, stand together. The first amendment is merely a paving one. These three amendments would postpone the coming into force of the Bill until six months after Royal Assent and then would enable the Home Secretary to appoint different days for the Bill to come into force in different areas. That introduces a measure of flexibility which I hope will commend itself to the House. However, again I shall leave my hon. Friends to deploy the case for that.

I should like to revert to new Clause 3. In my view the supporters of the Bill are on the horns of a dilemma which I shall describe. Therefore, I hope that they will welcome the new clause. The dilemma seems to have been created for them by the introduction of the Bill against all really knowledgeable advice.

On the one hand, the Bill is very controversial, unwanted by many thousands of country people of all classes, and makes into a crime a traditional sport which has been enjoyed since the advent of history. On the other hand, the Bill will not achieve its purpose of preventing cruelty, or alleged cruelty, and it will fail in its purpose, not because it will be unenforceable against small-scale coursing but because many hares which might have had a quick and certain death by being coursed will have a slow and lingering death in snares or after getting away from being shot at and wounded.

That is the dilemma, and we want to lift the supporters of the Bill off the horns of it. New Clause 3 would do just that. Surely it would be wise to give this controversial Bill a trial run of five seasons to see whether the experiment of banning coursing and turning it into a crime was in every way justified and acceptable to the people. If it were justified and were found to be fully and reasonably enforceable, it could be extended indefinitely merely by a resolution of both Houses, introduced perhaps by the Government. It might not be the same Government as we have today, and it would not be right for me to start speculating about that matter, but this is a fair approach. Five seasons is not a short time for a controversial experiment such as this.

If the Bill were found to be justified and if it were wanted, all that would be needed would be an Affirmative Resolution of both Houses. However, if public opinion, especially among country people, were that no good had come of the Bill, or if the police found that enforceability presented problems, the legislation could simply be allowed to become a sleeping dog—if that it not an inappropriate expression. If it became a sleeping dog, one would hope that it would be a permanently sleeping dog.

Death has been described as a dreamless sleep without an end. From it there is no awakening, and that is perhaps the best thing that could happen to the Bill.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that if the Government were to accept his proposal for a trial period of five years those who oppose the Bill would give it a Third Reading and we could all go home?

Sir David Renton

It is not for me, a mere back bencher, to start making bargains of that sort with the Government. I am speaking for myself. I cannot speak for members of the Opposition Front Bench. I cannot speak for all my hon. Friends, although I know that many of them agree with me and, I hope, will vote with me on this proposal. It would be presumptuous, I think unseemly, for me to start entering into bargains with the Government.

Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire)


Sir David Renton

Yes, unreasonable. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) will not tempt me further along that course.

I am not a coursing man, as I have previously told the House, but I have witnessed coursing events to see what coursing was like.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman leaves the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), may I remind him that he has claimed to be speaking on behalf of many thousands of country people who are in favour of a form of hare coursing? I assure him that there are many thousands of country people who take the opposite view and are altogether against cruelty to animals.

11.15 a.m.

Sir David Renton

We should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to enable me, and I am sure other hon. Members, to see this controversy in its proper perspective. This is a matter of our own evidence and experience. All that I can say is that in my constituency, where, I suppose, there is as much coursing as there is anywhere else in England, the vast majority of country people seem to want me to oppose the Bill. I am opposing it partly for that reason and partly because I do not consider that it is necessary or right to have a self-defeating Bill which turns a traditional sport into a crime.

The hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) has suggested that I claim to be representing thousands of country people. I claim to represent only what I believe to be the feelings of most of my country-living constituents and, for what they are worth, my own views. I did not say, and I have not claimed, that I represent thousands of country people in other constituencies who are opposed to the Bill, indifferent towards it or in favour of it.

Mr. Hastings

The intervention of the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) sought to show that many country people were against cruelty. Nobody here is in favour of cruelty, but is it not part of the case against the Bill that its passing would increase cruelty?

Sir David Renton

Yes. My hon. Friend's intervention brings me back to what I was about to say. I do not doubt the sincerity of hon. Members who wish to turn coursing into a crime, although some of them have never seen it. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has made a close study of it and has seen a number of courses, perhaps even more than I have. I have seen coursing only three times, but I have seen rabbits and hares which have been snared. I have found them in snares, in which they have been suffering for many hours, perhaps days, and have despatched them. I have seen hares shot and I have hunted with harriers, and I must confess that coursing provides a quicker and more certain death or, as an alternative, a free escape.

Therefore, in this vale of tears in which we and all our fellow creatures live, I do not believe that from the point of view of cruelty the case for the Bill has been established. That is why I think that after a five-season trial of the experiment it would be right for Parliament to take stock of the situation if the Bill were to receive the Royal Assent. I trust that none of the supporters of the Bill will be totally self-confident that they are right about this matter, but the vote on the new clause will give them a chance to prove their modesty and to prove that there is room for two honest views about this matter, however mistaken either of them may be. In a matter so uncertain and controversial as this, it would be much better for Parliament to take stock of the matter after five years, as was done with the Capital Punishment Act 1967. A five-year look was taken at it and then there was an Affirmative Resolution of both Houses.

The case is perfectly plain and there is no need for me to elaborate upon it further.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I have not intervened in debates on the subject of hare coursing hitherto. It is not a matter that I know much about and I have only once witnessed a coursing meeting. I was moved to postpone other engagements for today—indeed, also for tonight and tomorrow—because I was concerned that we should find ourselves dealing with this subject at this particular time, when there are so many more important things to deal with.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

Does the hon. Member consider this Bill to be as important as, for example, the Community Land Bill? If so, would that be the reason for his presence here today and the fact that he was not present for the discussion we had the other night on the Community Land Bill?

Mr. Ridley

I was here during the discussion on the Community Land Bill, and I think the hon. Gentleman will find that I registered votes throughout that day, based upon a firm conviction that that was also a waste of time of the House. The Bills which we should be discussing are not being discussed, and the actions which should be taken are not being taken by the Government. That is what is so frustrating for people such as myself who are deeply worried by the economic crisis and find ourselves day after day presented with irrelevancies. Today is no exception.

There comes to mind the miraculous escape yesterday of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser). That was a matter in which cruelty was involved. It is to me obnoxious that we should be discussing hare coursing when there are really serious crimes being perpetrated against human beings around the world.

One of the worst vices of the British character is that the British are much more concerned about animals than about people. This is the only country which has an RSPCA, and probably does not need one, whereas the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does not bear the affix Royal. It would seem that we get our priorities wrong, and this day is no exception.

I do not think that hare coursing is more cruel than some other things, or cruel at all. It is not in any degree different from many other ways in which animals are killed, both by men and by other animals. What I dislike is the singling out of this particular prejudice in the minds of the supporters of the Bill, and their attempt to impose their will on the rest of the citizenry. This is why I am attracted to new Clause 7, which at least seeks to allow local option.

One of the blind spots of the Labour Party is that it is so convinced in its prejudices that it believes it to be right to impose them upon others without consulting them or asking them. The whole history of this Government has been to single out something which in their opinion is wrong and to force their opinion, or ram it, down the throats of the rest of us.

I recognise that there are strong opinions both ways on this matter of hare coursing. I agree with the country view that the traditional sports are sports which are no business of those who do not engage in them, and are sports which should be allowed to continue. I cannot believe that the country people would be right if they were to impose on people who live in towns some sort of control over pets and the keeping of pets. There is very much cruelty involved in keeping pets. In 99 per cent. of cases they are properly kept but there are those who do not feed or look after pets properly. There are those who put birds in cages which are too small. There are many ways in which cats, dogs, birds, mice, tortoises, horses, and other animals can be treated cruelly. It would be possible to draw up regulations and legislation making it wrong to do so. I am not in favour of so doing.

My prejudices in this matter may not be shared widely, and what I think is cruel may not be thought to be cruel by other people. It is this lack of humility in imposing one's own selective judgment on others that is offensive in this Bill.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

If I gather correctly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, it is that those who are particularly interested in something should have the right to decide about it. Would he be in favour of bringing back bear baiting, bareknuckle fighting, cock fighting, and so on? These seem to me to be similar, and that is the direction in which his argument appears to be going? Would he clear up this point?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Member has given me my point, when he says that "these seem to me" things which should be stopped.

Throughout the whole of South America cock fighting is still practised, and people there do not think that it is cruel. I have no doubt that there are countries in which bear baiting is still practised. There are countries in which all sorts of things are still done. I am not an expert. It is not right to assume that this particular prejudice is shared by the whole House.

Mr. Spriggs

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman quite honestly and sincerely believes that there is no cruelty whatever in hare coursing and that it is the best way of bringing a hare's life to an end. Would he try to appreciate the suffering of an animal whose one important indication of pain and cruelty is its screaming when one, two or more dogs grab it and start to tear it to pieces while it is alive? Is not that a sign of pain and suffering?

Mr. Ridley

I do not think the hon. Gentleman can be a very great naturalist. I remember as a young boy wandering about in the countryside and once witnessing a rabbit being attacked by a stoat. The stoat ran round the rabbit several times and the rabbit was petrified and paralysed. It sat shivering with fear. After a while it started to scream. The stoat continued to dance round it, delighting in the screams, until finally it delivered the mercy killing bite in the back of the rabbit's neck, putting the rabbit out of its pain. This is an example of one animal being cruel to another.

It is nature's way that animals are cruel to each other. Every animal lives on another animal, except for those which are vegetarians. All animals which are insectivores or carnivorous are involved in some degree of cruelty to other animals. It is no exception when dogs are chasing hares. It is the natural function of the dog to chase the hare. Who am I to intervene in what nature has provided in this matter?

In my opinion, hare coursing is less cruel—if cruel it is—than many other sports, because man himself is not involved. It is animal being cruel to animal. It is not possible, in my view, to weigh up whether it is more cruel to shoot a hare or to snare or course it or just to let a fox take a hare in the wild. It is impossible, in my opinion, to make any value judgment about it at all. If I were forced to make a value judgment it would be that where man is involved in doing a cruel act it is more likely that man himself will discipline himself than where it is one animal being cruel to another.

11.30 a.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I apologise for intervening but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is the only point that I shall be making today because hon. Members opposite will be doing enough speaking anyway. The difference between the stoat taking and killing a rabbit or a dog chasing and killing a hare or fox in the normal way and hare coursing is that in the latter human beings intervene and it is done for their enjoyment. There is a moral point here which I see the hon. Member does not understand. It is precisely on that point that there is a difference between hare coursing and the normal course of events of animal against animal.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

What about fishing?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Member's intervention illustrates the difficulty that we now have with this new suggestion prefixed by the word "moral", which I always treat with the greatest respect. The moment that someone accuses another of morality or immorality I suspect that we are getting near a piece of shaky ground, and this is no exception. If it is immoral for man to get pleasure from something involving the death and suffering of animals, one has to start along the whole road of fishing and shooting and all the other activities in which man husbands-animals with a view to sport, pleasure or even food.

Let me rehearse with the hon. Member, whose researches into this subject I am sure are very great, what happens on our farms and in our slaughterhouses. There, in order that the hon. Member may have his steak, there are the unpleasant processes of castration of young animals when they are born and the disgusting sights which take place in slaughterhouses. All of these are for the enjoyment of the hon. Member when he eats his roast beef. As he sticks his fork into his roast beef and licks his chops as he sets about the Yorkshire pudding, is he taking enjoyment in the cruel and unpleasant processes which have gone into producing that roast beef? Where are his morals? If he accuses the coursers of immorality, he should quickly turn vegetarian, because the chain is there throughout nature, that one animal eats another.

The hon. Member is no exception in this unless he is a vegetarian. I remember that he once missed a vital debate on Report stage and came in just as the winding up speeches were concluding because, he said, he had had to have his supper. He was sorry that he had not been here. The debate—it will come to me in a moment—was on worker participation.

Mr. Heffer

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friends had to carry the day on that occasion in explaining the rights and wrongs—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Would the hon. Member come back to the new clause?

Mr. Ridley

Of course, Mr. Speaker. I merely say that the hon. Member may not be so moral if he remains a carnivore.

I will get back to the new clause, particularly new Clause 7. We do not have the right to impose our own fine judgment as to which way of killing hares or other animals is right and which is wrong. The least that we can do, seeing that we are now on Report and not on Second Reading, is give people the option in this matter on a local basis. I have no doubt that the country districts would vote, if given the opportunity, to continue this traditional sport. I am certain that the two district councils which I have the honour to represent, if a proper balance were arranged, would both produce a positive vote to continue coursing.

I cannot see why those who live in London or Liverpool or the other big cities should be allowed to impose on my constituents the decision whether they may continue with what they think to be right.

Sir David Renton

To avoid misunderstanding, it would help if my hon. Friend could make it plain that it is the local government electors for the area and not the councillors themselves who would exercise this local option.

Mr. Ridley

That is very helpful. I should not be quite so certain if it were the councillors. But if it were the electors themselves, we could with confidence predict that the country districts would wish to retain coursing. That seems at the heart of this debate. Is it right that those who may not have full knowledge of these sports, those who do not have to live in country districts with the problems perhaps of too many hares—I know that the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) is over-run with hares, which can do great damage—should deprive country people of the right to decide this matter for themselves?

To put the case the other way, suppose that this were predominantly a rural country with a 75–25 per cent. rural industrial split, as many countries are, would it be right for the country people to decide to ban football because of the damage to trains and stadiums and the chaos which is caused in big cities by riots at football matches? No, emphatically no. I would advise the country people not to ban football because it is none of their business. So it would be wrong for those who live in towns to seek to impose their will on those who live in the countryside.

I therefore commend to the House the new clause which gives the local people the right to decide. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, if we want to consult people more, to allow them to shape their own pleasures and pastimes rather than having them imposed from the centre, if we are to avoid value judgments which may seem right to hon. Members whose prejudices may be offended by such things as hare coursing, surely we must give them the right to decide.

I should prefer the Bill to be withdrawn, but if the Government are not prepared to withdraw it, my hon. Friends should continue to urge strongly the case for local elections in this matter.

I mean no discourtesy to my right hon. and learned Friend when I say that I prefer new Clause 7 to new Clause 3. The latter is one that I would certainly support but I would like it better if, during the five-year period, coursing could continue and we then decided whether to stop it. I think he has the onus the wrong way around. But if he would let me place the weight of my argument on the local option clause, I would be satisfied.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

I will speak for only a few minutes and only because I was enraged by the speech to which we have just listened. I have always regarded the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) as a mild-mannered man, but at the end he revealed the real reason for his speech when he said that he would prefer the Bill to be withdrawn. I think that he has been trying to defeat the Bill by means of two new clauses and has tried, rather inadequately in my opinion, to justify them.

For example, he told us at some length that it is wrong to impose our will on people who do not agree with the Bill. But every Bill that we consider imposes something against the will of some section of the community, as any MP must realise from his mail. I suppose that a large number of burglars, for example, object to our passing laws to make burglary an offence. But we do not hesitate on that account to pass them, because we believe that what we are doing—and what we owe the electorate is our judgment—is for the benefit of the community as a whole. That is why I support the Bill.

To give a catalogue of other sports which the hon. Gentleman imagines are even more-cruel is no reason for withdrawing the Bill or modifying it. If there are other sports which the hon. Gentle man regards as cruel, he ought to do something about them and not come here and attack those who have had the good sense to tackle the problem which they see as a first priority. If the hon. Gentleman has other priorities, let him do something about it. If he can demonstrate to me that those other sports are as cruel as or more-cruel than hare coursing, he will have my full support for his Bill.

As for the suggestion that there should be a five-year period during which this matter should be tested, this again is a strategy by which the Opposition hope that the Bill will be defeated in the end, because they know that if there is no record for five years of cruelty in this sport they are likely to get support if they pursue the argument that the sport should be permitted again.

Those who object to the Bill should vote against it and demonstrate to those who have made representations that they wholeheartedly support the petitions and letters that have been sent in. There is nothing to be ashamed of in doing that. There is no need to try to conceal things by means of specious amendments and new clauses. Let hon. Members make quite plain where they stand on the Bill. They should do that so that they reflect the feelings of all those who, they claim, have written to them. I shall vote in the way which I think is best and which I am confident will reflect the feelings of many people in my constituency.

Mr. Hastings

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond). I think he said he was satisfied that the Bill was in the interests of the community. If that is his conviction, I cannot see why he should oppose new Clause 7, which would give people in all districts affected—indeed, throughout the country—an opportunity to express their view. If that is the interest that he is putting forward, his place today is with us in the Lobby should we divided on the new clause.

There are many other aspects to this complicated matter. We who had the good fortune to serve on the Standing Committee are aware of them but they have not been aired all that widely in the debate today. It is not solely the welfare of the community as a whole or the benefit of the community as a whole with which we are concerned. We are also concerned with the benefit of the hare population.

That brings me to the main purpose, as I conceive it, behind the amendments and new clauses refered to so eloquently by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). They all have one aspect in common, although they ask for slightly different things, and that is delay of some kind. As my right hon. and learned Friend put it, the Bill should be stopped and should go to sleep after five years. The purport of the amendments is to have the delay first so that a further inquiry can be carried out.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). I prefer the latter rather than the former approach to this problem—that is to say, we have manifestly not had the time to conduct anything like as deep an inquiry as we should into the welfare of this species, into its way of life and into the possible effects of this legislation. Therefore, by some method or another—and I am not particularly choosey as to how it should be done—delay should be imposed, whatever the merits of the Bill in the long run, so that a further inquiry can be undertaken.

11.45 a.m.

During the last century we had a most unfortunate experience of legislation over ground game—that is to say, hares and rabbits. The effect of that legislation turned out to be near disastrous. That Act was the result of the disastrous harvest of 1879, as any student of these matters will know, when the farmers, who were in an appalling condition, protested that amongst the causes for that disaster were the activities of rabbits and hares. That Act, which was known also as the rabbits and hares Act, was brought in with catastrophic results for the hare population in a short time.

To emphasise what happened, I do not think I can do better than quote from the able and deep study of aspects of this matter by Stable and Stuttard, although they admit that not enough is known about the hare population. I quote from their quotation of what the Rev. H. A. Macpherson said shortly after that Act came into force: A great change has taken place in the number of hares that are annually bred in England. Go where you may, one meets almost universally with the same lament, that where you would formerly have seen 20 or 30 hares feeding in the fields on a summer evening you will now hardly see a single animal. As his colleague Richardson said at the same time, In the South of England big and important coursing meetings have ceased to exist, except at Newmarket in Essex. All those magnificent downlands in Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorsetshire furnish possibly one course for every score that used to be run less than a quarter of a century ago. At Ashdown, Amesbury and a few other places in the same district"— I hope that hon. Members who represent these places have the good fortune to be with us this morning— where the conditions were one simply perfect, occasional small and unimportant meetings are held; but the fact is that the disappearance of the hares has caused the greyhounds to disappear in like manner, and in disgust. There is no need to emphasise it any further. That was the result of legislating for hares without sufficient knowledge of the hare's life, the dangers that it faces or the likely results of what was being done, and we are engaged in doing much the same thing now.

An inquiry is necessary, and I should like to suggest the form that the inquiry should take. We had inadequate time to deal with this in Committee. We did our best but there were a limited number of sittings and we never got round in a serious way to the matter of conservation. We are discussing the welfare of animals, yet nobody has bothered to look in any depth into conservation of the hare. What dangers does it face? It faces many threats as it is. Very little work has been done into diseases affecting hares. A lot more is known about this in France and the Scandinavian countries, but we were not able to go there to find out more about it.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

My hon. Friend has talked about diseases affecting hares. Does he agree that far more cruelty was perpetrated by the introduction of myxomatosis than will ever be perpetrated by hare coursing?

Mr. Hastings

My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth. I was coming to deal with myxomatosis, but there are other and important diseases affecting the hare. In particular, there is one that has been identified as a form of tuberculosis which is contracted from the parasite known as strongylus commutatus which attacks both forms of hare in this country, both lepidus timidus and the common brown hare. Once myxomatosis was let loose in this country we would have expected the hare populalation to increase rapidly because the competition of the rabbit would have been removed. For a short time in certain areas that was the case.

This points indisputably to the fact that this creature faces a great many other threats about which we are relatively ignorant, one of which is crop spraying. The weedkiller Paraquat, which is manufactured by ICI, is used fairly widely in down land districts. I do not know what it contains. It has been established and admitted by the manufactureres that hares have been found dead, sometimes in large numbers, as a result of its use. I understand that ICI is conducting an analysis or inquiry to determine the extent of the danger. It is a pity that it did not do so earlier.

Anyone who is familiar with the countryside in East Anglia will know of the enormous increase in traffic to the East Coast. If one drives in that direction, at any time of the year one will find the road literally littered with dead hares and leverets. This trend must be on the increase.

However, without doubt the greatest danger is that of shooting. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury pointed out, in many respects the hare is a menace to farming. That cannot be denied. Not every farmer is guilty of shooting, because many farmers prefer to see hares in the wild as well as having economic efficiency on the farm. However, there are those who do not view the matter that way, who have no use for animals and who regard them with suspicion even if their detrimental activities cannot be proved. Shooting takes place on a large scale and has recently increased. It will continue to do so whenever there is no counter force at work. This is an old story.

In no sense am I exaggerating. I commend to the House "The Leaping Hare" by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson. It says: A Norfolk farmer of the old school estimated that —this is as recent as the 1950s— in the farming year one hare would cost him two sacks of corn. Consequently, if there were forty hares on the farm his yield would suffer by eighty combs—a loss that no farmer could afford to stand. He said that hares work during the day; and they eat the 'knots' out of the wheat-stems thus preventing the plants coming to maturity. Moreover, they work out in the middle of the field, unlike the rabbits which keep to the edge where damage is immediately visible. But as the hare likes to live in the open where it can use its speed to best advantage, the farmer will suddenly come across huge, ruined patches in the centre of his corn, perhaps the first indication he has that hares have been at work. The book continues: In recent years, too, hares in East Anglia have done extensive damage to sugar-beet crops. This happened particularly in the 1954 season when hares were unusually plentiful. At that time West Suffolk farmers estimated that in some areas hares had reduced the crop of sugar-beet by as much as two tons an acre. As long as that continues, the shooting of hares will continue to increase and the species will be in danger and will continue to be in danger.

The evidence taken by Stable and Stuttard shows that five years ago in some places in Lincolnshire 150 to 200 hares were shot in an afternoon, but now only 20 to 30 are shot. It is indisputable that if co-operation exists between coursing clubs and farmers, the hare population keeps steady. Hare coursing conserves. The evidence adduced by Stable and Stuttard and by other studies in this matter proves it. The species may have to face dangers in other respects, but there is no doubt whatever that, regardless of its other merits or demerits, hare coursing tends to conserve.

The cases I have adduced so far have been confined to the brown hare. I would admit, if I were to give a complete picture of the state of affairs, that the blue hare, the mountain hare or Arctic hare—lepidus timidus—is in a different category because it does not compete with man in the food which it pursues and eats—lichen, cotton grass and coarse grasses on the mountain. The numbers of these hares are very large and they do not live below about 1,000 ft. It could not be said that the menaces that the Arctic hare faces are the same as those which the brown hare faces, except that more predators menace it on the mountain than at sea level. For instance, among the predators there are the eagle, the buzzard and the hen harrier, which take a large number of hares.

If we conducted a full and deep inquiry of the kind I have in mind, a case could be made for coursing the lepidus timidus instead of the brown hare, which those who have been to coursing meetings know is the normal quarry. I hope we shall be told today whether that is a feasible proposition. Deer hounds have been used, but I do not want to go too deeply into that matter in the context of these amendments. Perhaps later during the debate there may be a chance to do so.

Threats to this species are different for the mountain hare than for the brown hare. Without question, shooting not only by farmers but by syndicates will continue and is the biggest menace. Hon. Members who have experience of these matters—I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) agreeing—will know that there is a vast difference between syndicates and syndicates. There are those which for the best reasons enjoy sport in the open air but which, perhaps because they are town bred and have an urban background, do not have sufficient knowledge of the balance of life in game in the countryside always to judge effectively whether they are overshooting. This is an additional reason for shooting probably being the greatest menace.

There is no doubt that the hare population is menaced. Equally there is no doubt that we do not know by what or how. When coursing takes place regularly and is properly regulated there is no doubt that it tends to conserve, as do all field sports. We would need a separate inquiry from the one I have in mind to settle this matter once and for all and to demonstrate to those who, for their misfortunes, have always lived in towns or in an urban atmosphere that field sports conserve and that in the long run the disappearance of such sports would mean the end of all the game involved.

Sir David Renton

And foxes too.

Mr. Hastings

And foxes too, as has happened elsewhere. I have been to France and seen what has happened there.

However, be that as it may, all that we can ask for in this context is a full inquiry into the hare species itself. Coursing tends to conserve. Its abolition will add to the threat to the hare population, not reduce it. Thus, anyone who supports the Bill as it stands and is not prepared to accept these amendments must face that inevitable consequence of his action, if it should succeed.

Since the effect of the Bill, therefore, is adverse to hares in the various ways I have described, some moratorium or delay should be imposed. The proposals now before us give the answer, and I earnestly hope that the House will support them.

12 noon.

Mr. Spriggs

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) has just asserted that hare coursing tends to conserve. I have never in my life heard such an extraordinary interpretation put on the term "conservation". The hon. Gentleman tells us that his object is to conserve, and I gather that his reason for supporting hare coursing is that the hare is responsible for taking many tons of farmers' produce every year. Thus, in supporting his idea of conservation, the hon. Member supports the loss of food which the farmers produce. That must follow from the meaning which he applies to conservation when he speaks of conserving the life of the hare.

The most important matter before us, in my view, is new Clause 7. We ought strongly to oppose any effort to take from Parliament the responsibility of enacting measures on behalf of animals which cannot speak for themselves. We can only take evidence from what we see and hear at hare coursing. I have myself witnessed hare coursing, and I am arguing the case today only after having gathered firsthand evidence for myself.

It is not possible to deal with this matter on a national basis, applying to it the strength of law, without putting a Bill on the statute book to protect hares—the same applies to other animals—against cruelty. We cannot leave it to certain local authorities which, as we well know from what has been said this morning, would favour the retention of hare coursing.

Sir David Renton

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to draw his attention to the fact that new Clause 7 places power not in the hands of local authorities but in the hands of the local government electors?

Mr. Spriggs

Yes, it would be the responsibility of local authorities to hold a local poll. I acknowledge what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has drawn to my attention, and I correct what I said. The electors in a local poll would decide. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] That interpretation is quite correct, but the point here is that we must deal with this matter on a national, not a local, basis.

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) described the antics of the stoat when seeking its natural food, when encircling the rabbit or hare, after which the creature becomes virtually paralysed and is an easy victim to the stoat. We can all understand that story. It is a story of natural life in the countryside. But that is entirely different from the hare coursing with which we are here dealing, in which man makes a special job of training dogs to chase and catch hares. I remind the House that it is when the hare has been caught by the dogs that we see and hear some of the most-cruel aspects of hare coursing.

I wish that those who have had nothing to do with hare coursing, the general public who have not seen it for themselves, would take the opportunity to do so. Invitations are openly sent out by those responsible for organising hare coursing, and it has been and remains for the moment quite possible for people to go and see for themselves what happens.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

The hon. Gentleman is making an impassioned speech against hare coursing. With great respect, I must remind him that the Bill is directed to hare coursing matches. He will not abolish hare coursing under the Bill as it stands.

Mr. Spriggs

I understand the intention of the Bill. If it is enacted, it will on a national legal basis remove hare coursing matches. It will remove organised hare coursing. Most of us realise that there is hardly a law in this country which is not broken at some time by someone. I do not imagine that the Minister or his Department believes that it will be possible to eradicate hare coursing completely, even on an organised basis. We know the history of cock fighting. In some parts of the world cock fighting still goes on, though outside the law, because there are small groups of people who are still prepared to organise it illegally. I could discuss other forms of law breaking too, but I know that the Chair would not allow me to stray from the Hare Coursing Bill.

Mr. Michael Mates (Petersfield)

Will the hon. Gentleman go back to what he said a minute ago, with which I very much agreed? He wishes that the vast majority of people who know nothing about hare coursing would take the opportunity to go and see it for themselves. If the hon. Gentleman will support the amendments now before us, people will be able to do just that, because an opportunity for delay and for consideration will be imposed.

Mr. Spriggs

What the hon. Gentleman calls for has been possible already for a long time. It has been possible for people to look into the matter for themselves, and these clauses and amendments are not necessary for that purpose. For 10 or 20 years this matter has been brought to public notice, publicity has been given to it by the media at various times and most of those interested to do so have been able to witness hare coursing at first hand.

I ask the House carefully to consider the difference between what the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury told us about the natural habit of the stoat and the true character of this man-controlled so-called sport. Hare coursing on an organised basis is done for the entertainment of a comparatively small minority, and I deeply regret that there are still those who enjoy watching dogs chase a hare until it is caught and who stand watching with relish the tearing to pieces of a living animal.

Mr. David James

What justification does the hon. Member have for saying that people watch hare coursing with relish? The relish for a fisherman lies not in knocking a fish on the head with a priest, but in pitching a fly one foot in front of its nose. It is not the kill but the art which is interesting.

Mr. Spriggs

We find the same group of people attending and supporting organised hare coursing meets. It is obvious that they have enjoyed watching previous matches. That is why I appeal with all my passion and moral feeling for the House to reject the new clauses and amendments.

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

Before winding up on this group of amendments, I must say that we deplore the absence of the Home Secretary today. If the Government believe this is an important enough Bill to announce in advance that the rule will be suspended at four o'clock, the Home Secretary should be here, at least for the start of our proceedings. If he and the Home Office are right behind the Bill, he ought to be here.

Sir David Renton

Does not my hon. Friend also find it rather surprising that there is only one person on the Treasury Bench—the Under-Secretary, who has always been diligent in her attendance—and only three hon. Members of the Government back benches for what has been presented as a necessary Government Bill?

Mr. Mather

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He is absolutely right. The House has been put to considerable inconvenience over this Bill. A lot of time and effort have been spent on it at a time when the House had better things to consider than a Bill of this nature.

Mr. Spriggs

The hon. Member should realise that there are many meetings taking place this morning. In particular, there is one to which the Home Secretary is having to give special attention. It is wrong for any back bencher to criticise the Home Secretary when he has such important matters to deal with.

Mr. Mather

The hon. Member might be more specific about those meetings. He seems to speak with some authority. It is certainly the right and privilege of any Privy Councillor on the Opposition benches to criticise the Home Secretary.

This is perhaps the most important group of clauses and amendments that we shall be discussing today. We have put them down because we believe that this is bad legislation founded on misconceptions. My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) was right when he said that the prejudice involved in the Bill could be boiled down to the fact that those who wished to ram this process down the throats of other people are showing a lack of humility. This is bad because the Home Office is repudiating its own inquiry set up several years ago and it is bad from the point of view of democracy because it victimises a tiny minority.

12.15 p.m.

The object of the new clauses and amendments is to give time for second thoughts. If the Government are determined to get this Bill, despite our efforts to bring wiser counsel to prevail, it is our job to see that the legislation is soundly based. There have been too many examples of poor legislation passed in a great hurry and repented at leisure. We have only to look at the abortion law to see an example of that. There have been numerous Private Members' Bills trying to change it and Select Committees have been set up and have absorbed and wasted the time of the House. The onus is very much on the Opposition to see that legislation is soundly based.

I freely admit that this is a subject which stirs up emotions, and we have already heard several emotional speeches. But emotion is not a good parliamentary draftsman, and legislation must be based not on emotion but on common sense. The purpose of the new clauses and amendments is not simply to delay, though that may appear to be so at a casual reading. Each has an element of delay in it, but we want to allow time for the Government to set up an inquiry Amendment No. 11, which provides for the Bill to come into operation at different times in different areas, has precedents in legislation, the main one being the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act. A similar provision has also been allowed for in the Community Land Bill.

Under Amendment No. 11 the Home Secretary could draw up a code of rules and send his inspectors to each coursing area where meetings were held. If the coursing club did not abide by the strict and stringent code, which could improve provision for muzzling, the Home Secretary could bring the Act into operation by order. Amendment No. 11 is really consequential on new Clause 7, which would allow for polls to take place in each local government district. My hon. Friends have already explained very well the merits of this proposal, which would be good for local democracy.

We hear a lot about local democracy these days. The place in which this arrangement is allowed from time to time is in Wales in connection with licensing. I have a recent Press cutting about a referendum which we all forget. It states: The Welsh seven-year itch is upon us again. How many dry areas will vote for Sunday drinking? How many wet areas will go dry? How many people care? People care about these local government polls. This particular poll causes great excitement in Wales. That is local democracy. I therefore advise the Under-Secretary to look with some care and interest at the amendment.

Mr. Kimball

Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the House that, from a coursing point of view anyhow, we should prefer new Clause 7 with its safeguards to the new clause moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton)?

Mr. Mather

I tend to agree with my hon. Friend that new Clause 7 is a more satisfactory method and should be regarded as the main clause of the group.

Apart from local government polls, there are other examples. There was the Northern Ireland border poll which dealt with a somewhat different situation, but it was nevertheless an adventure into local democracy. It set a precedent. Although there were those of us who argued that it was not good for Parliament and parliamentary democracy to have such polls, I willingly concede that the Conservative Government created the border poll in Northern Ireland. Although I believe that the EEC referendum should not have taken place and that Parliament should have decided, it nevertheless set another precedent.

I understand from the advice of the learned Clerks that if we had put down our amendments and new clauses before the EEC referendum became law they would automatically have been ruled out of order, but the referendum breached the old principle and, therefore, we may discuss them today.

We have to consider whether polls have come to stay. Local polls would be very popular on other issues such as capital punishment, nationalisation and even fluoridation, on which people feel passionately.

Mr. Hastings

Since my hon. Friend has raised the point, may I ask whether it would not be very much better if this House were today discussing capital punishment for terrorists rather than this Bill?

Mr. Mather

I had intended to touch on that aspect during Third Reading, because after what we have been through this week we should bear in mind why we are in this place. We have to decide which are the real issues of the day, whether they are terrorism, the economic crisis, unemployment or anything else. In a way it is somewhat embarrassing for us to have to be here on a Friday discussing matters of this sort when we should be discussing really important issues.

Although I do not favour the new clause moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire as strongly as the other proposals, it would, if accepted, nevertheless give time for an inquiry to be held. The origins of the Bill are to be found in the Stable Report and in the late Mr. Chuter Ede's statement. Page 101 of my reference book shows why the original proposal to bring in a hare coursing Bill was rejected by the Labour Government of the day. It was because (i) the Bill was based on the false premise that its provisions would lessen cruelty; (ii) the suppression of hunting and coursing, without effective and efficient alternatives would lead to much less satisfactory activities. It was as a result of that that the Government agreed to set up the inquiry by Mr. Scott Henderson.

In her Second Reading speech the Under-Secretary made great play about the Scott Henderson Report and its so-called obscurities and what she called its classical text. Of course, it is a classical text because it is the only authentic inquiry ever held on field sports and coursing. The most surprising comment on the report was the hon. Lady's remark that it was too neutral. I have never heard of a Government setting up a committee of inquiry and then complaining because it was too impartial or too neutral.

If I had time, I should like to go on to explain how unbiased that report is and how unbiased were its authors. It was published 24 years ago. I do not think that there has been an advance in the standards of morality, if this is a moral question, in those 24 years. In fact, several backward steps have been taken and, therefore, one cannot argue that-times, and certainly not moral attitudes, have changed. If the report is so obscure and worthless, why not bring it up to date and provide something on which to base sound legislation. That is part of the object of our amendments.

There was the Stable and Stuttard Report to which the Under-Secretary objects. If she objects to it, why not ensure that there is a soundly-based, up-to-date report to take its place? I guess that she does not want an objective report because it would not serve her purpose or the purpose of those who are behind the Bill. That is why we shall divide on this group of new clauses and amendments.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

For the convenience of the House, I shall deal with each new clause and amendment in turn.

New Clause 3 would have the effect of restricting the prohibition of hare coursing to five years in the first instance, after which time it would become legal again unless Parliament decided otherwise. I listened to the brief explanation given by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), but it did not include an answer to the Government's objection to hare coursing: that it is a cruel sport. If it is cruel in 1975 it will be cruel in 1980, and the same argument will apply at any later date.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) is passionately concerned to ensure conservation of the hare. He exhibits a very worthy motive. If it is so uppermost in his mind, I suggest that we find some other method of promoting its conservation and do not rely on a brutal and cowardly sport.

12.30 p.m.

The suggestion of an inquiry into the hare population sounds academically interesting. I am surprised that it has not been done before by those interested in the welfare of the hare. There is nothing to stop us from carrying out an inquiry into the hare population, but meanwhile we do not wish the sport of hare coursing to be continued.

I turn to new Clause 7 and Amendment No. 1, which seek to introduce a system of local options. Hare coursing would continue to be legal unless in any particular area not less than 500 electors requisitioned a poll on the question and the poll was decided in favour of banning hare coursing. The new clause, as I understand it, would also give the Secretary of State power to make regulations by statutory instrument for the purpose of arranging such a poll.

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) seemed to feel that the whole issue of hare coursing was a matter of town versus country, and that in some way London would vote against hare coursing and that some remote part of Britain where it was carried out would vote in favour. I believe that there is no such clear delineation of opinion.

There are a few precedents for local polls, but the circumstances to which they relate are wholly different from the subject of the Bill. The best known example is probably Sunday licensing in Wales, where every seven years the population has an opportunity of deciding whether alcohol should be sold on that day. That provision recognises the deeply-held conscientious and religious objections of a substantial minority of the community in Wales. It has been pointed out by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire that the similar precedent of Sunday cinema opening has been brought to an end. However, those precedents are of no relevance to the creation of what is a new criminal offence, the justification for which has nothing to do with legal circumstances.

The justification for the Bill is that hare coursing is a barbaric sport wherever and whenever it occurs. It is the Government's view that hare coursing is cruel per se and should be made illegal irrespective of whether in particular areas some people take a different view. It would be indefensible to have a situation in which, because of local feeling, hare coursing was permitted to take place in some areas but not in others.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are similar in intention and effect. Amendment No. 11 would provide for the Act to be brought into effect by order not earlier than six months after its enactment. The order could provide for its coming into operation to date from different days in different areas.

The substitution of a six-month minimum period before the Act may be brought into effect in place of the one month in the Bill as drafted would have the effect of allowing the coursing season which has just begun, including the Waterloo Cup, to be completed. It may be argued that this would allow the coursing fraternity to make arrangements for the disposal of staff and dogs. This argument has been raised before. It has been pointed out that the coursing world has had notice of the Government's intention for a considerable time and cannot possibly claim to have been taken unawares.

There is no justification for bringing the Act into effect by order as there is no administrative machinery to be set up or preparatory work to be completed to enable the Act to function effectively. The Bill provides for its provisions to come into force one month after its passage. That is the normal interval for criminal law. It would also be most unusual for a commencement order procedure to be made subject, as the amendment would make this one, to further parliamentary proceedings.

Similarly, there is no reason for the Act to be brought into effect at different times for different areas. If coursing is unacceptable in Yorkshire, it is unacceptable in Essex. The Government's objection to coursing is that it is cruel wherever it is practised.

Amendment No. 12 provides for the Act to come into force 12 months after its enactment instead of after one month. The same general arguments apply.

For those reasons, I invite the House to oppose all the new clauses and amendments before it.

Sir David Renton

I seek leave to withdraw new Clause 3. It seems that the weight of support that we have heard is in favour of new Clause 7, the local option clause, which I also commended to the House. So that we may make progress, I suggest that we do not take time on a Division on new Clause 3. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave withdrawn.

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