HC Deb 16 November 1979 vol 973 cc1741-6

Order for Second Reading read.

3.42 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

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

The purpose of the Bill is to counter the prolific amount of poaching that is being carried on, with very rewarding results for those involved.

We have just had a very interesting debate about animals, so I shall not weary the House with all the details of deer poaching that I have. Suffice it to say that almost every week the newspapers have records not only of the hauls that deer poachers are making but of the horrific and barbaric cruelty involved in their pastime.

The poachers are concerned mainly to kill deer by any methods, provided they can get hold of the carcase, which is worth up to £200. The cruellest possible means of securement are used, including the use of lurchers to tear the deer down, piano wire and improper weapons.

Basically, the Bill is introduced in an effort to strengthen and tighten the Deer Act 1963. It is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the protection of deer. Schedule 1 lays down close seasons, which can be amended by Government order, and deals with nightly close times, when deer killing will not be permitted. Exceptions are given for veterinary surgeons and farmers and those engaged in agricultural crop protection.

Clause 2 deals with prohibited firearms and ammunition, which are listed in Schedule 2. The list can be amended by Government order. Again, there is an exception when damage is being caused to farmers' crops, and exceptions are permitted for the use of humane killers.

Clause 3 deals with the various articles that are prohibited for use in securing deer. It covers various traps, certain methods of poisoning and darting and the use of artificial lighting. It, too, gives exceptions for vets.

Clause 4 deals with the removal and tagging of live deer, again with exceptions for vets.

Clause 5 deals with general exceptions to the powers that I have already mentioned.

Clause 6 relates to deer which are not in a wild state.

Clause 7 deals with the prevention of poaching and introduces certain methods making it easier for the police and the authorities to prevent prolific poaching.

There are three parts to the Bill. Part I deals with the protection of deer. Part II establishes a system of trading in venison. Its three paragraphs set up a system to control the sale and purchase of venison which, broadly speaking, would be carried out only by a licensed game dealer. He would have to compile and maintain a register of venison transactions, which can be destroyed at the end of three years.

Part III is miscellaneous and general and deals with the powers of disqualification and forfeiture which it is intended the House should grant to the courts where barbaric poachers are found guilty of causing distress and suffering to deer. Clause 15 proposes to grant the courts power to order the forfeiture not only of any deer that may have been caught but of firearms, ammunition, dogs, vehicles and prohibited articles. Power is granted to the courts to cancel the firearms, shotgun and game dealers' certificates of those found guilty of the offences.

Clause 16 makes bodies corporate equally responsible. It is important to note that it refers to the powers granted to the Minister earlier in the Bill to amend schedule 1 relating to a close season for deer and schedule 2 relating to prohibited weapons. Clause 17 lays down the procedure, after prior consultation, for the Minister to introduce an order amending either schedule 1 or schedule 2. Clause 17 makes provision for the Bill's application to Northern Ireland. Clause 18 is the interpretation clause. That concludes part III of the Bill.

Since the Bill's publication, especially in recent weeks, I have received a number of representations from colleagues on both sides of the House in relation to various matters, especially deer farming. I have been in correspondence with Mr. Gladstone, chairman of the British Deer Farmers Association. I understand that there are more than 100 deer farmers in the country and that the number is expected to double in a short time. I have given Mr. Gladstone and his association an undertaking that when the Bill has been given a Second Reading but before it reaches Committee I will meet him and his advisers to consider improvements to the Bill that would help those concerned with, engaged in, or making a living from deer farming.

Mr. Gladstone has given me a file of papers showing the amendments asked for by his association. Due to shortage of time, I will not go into that matter further. As soon as a Second Reading has been given, I and my colleagues will meet Mr. Gladstone to consider amendments to the Bill.

Another particularly powerful lobby that I have had from many respected people relates to what I would call the "vets alone" parts of the Bill. Particularly the early parts of the Bill give powers to veterinary surgeons to carry out duties relating to deer which others feel should not be confined to vets. I have had to give another undertaking, which I am greatly looking forward to honouring, to meet the Institute of Biology and all the scientists and others who are so skilled in deer research immediately after Second Reading to see how we can extend the powers confined to vets to skilled scientists who spend almost all their lives in deer research.

My own view is that to confine these powers, which occur in many parts of the Bill, to vets alone is to make the legislation too narrow. I hope that we shall be able to hammer out a suitable agreement to extend those provisions to others. In preparing an additional class of persons who will be able to grant licences for experimentation on deer, I hope that the NERC will father and scrutinise the list that I have in mind.

We have to work out the details. It would be wrong to call the committee that I want to establish a "vetting committee". It would be a committee of scrutiny, which I hope would permit every sensible applicant who is concerned with the welfare of deer to be included without destroying the purposes of the Bill and would allow his present research to continue.

I have dealt with the two main points, but a number of other points have been put to me by people in different parts of the country. I did not have time to tell the House earlier, but I tell it now, that the Bill applies only to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and not to Scotland—partly because some of its provisions are already effective in Scotland. However, I have been approached by a number of Scottish representatives who strongly support the Bill with a request that part II, relating to the establishment of a venison register, should apply to Scotland as well. I hope that consultations can take place on that matter.

I have also been approached by those who would like to see permitted under very strict conditions the legal use of crossbows for firing tranquillising darts at deer in certain circumstances. I have made it clear that provided the purpose of my Bill is not destroyed—that is, to strengthen the law against deer poaching—we shall be happy to work out a compromise so that those who have to tranquillise deer for scientific or veterinary purposes can legally do so.

I have had to be brief in moving the Second Reading. I remind the House that the Bill is designed to help end the cruelty involved in deer poaching. Trespass in pursuit of deer will become an offence; this will block many existing loopholes. Sales and other transactions in venison will be controlled, thus at least preventing the sale of poached venison.

The powers of search and arrest of the police will be increased and prosecutions made easier, while the landowner and his employees will have greater powers. It is proposed to increase penalties, especially when two or more animals are involved, and to permit the confiscation of all equipment, including vehicles. The cancellation of any firearms certificate held is also provided for.

3.55 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)

This is the second Bill today concerned with the welfare of animals. We are now discussing that noble animal, the deer. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), has explained succinctly the background to the Bill and its provisions. The Bill attempts to deal with a number of problems not covered by the Deer Act 1963. I hope that it will be considered in that light and on an objective and constructive basis. My hon. Friend indicated that this is how he approaches the matter, and I am grateful to him.

Some provisions of the Bill, however, give rise to concern and will require amendments at a later stage if it is to be completely acceptable. My hon. Friend has made clear his position on that point.

There are a number of points on which amendment is necessary in order to take full account of the position of deer farms. Reference is made in clauses 3(4), 5(2) and 6(1)(a) to deer not in the wild state but on enclosed land. These provisions are concerned only with the herding of such deer, acts of self-defence on such land, and concern for the humane treatment of deer. Otherwise, the measures proposed in the Bill are applicable to farmed deer, and the full rigours of the Bill would apply. We consider that this would unnecessarily and unreasonably inhibit the activities of deer farmers. I am pleased, therefore, that my hon. Friend does not intend to inhibit the development of deer farms and that appropriate amendments will be made to the Bill to exclude them from its provisions.

The second area of difficulty centres round the concern of those who are engaged in research on deer, particularly the Nature Conservancy Council, and others with a similar interest in deer research To conduct that research in the case of deer, as with most animals, workers need, for example, to catch, mark or examine them for the purpose of studies into their habitat and diet.

Much of this research is carried out in remote places. As the Bill stands, however, research would be seriously impeded by the requirement that a veterinary surgeon or practitioner must always be present when the research worker wishes to carry out these activities. The humanitarian considerations which have prompted the promoters of the Bill to require a vet to be in attendance are appreciated, but there is a justifiable case for allowing scientific research to be done by competent scientists without the prescence of a veterinary surgeon. This would be to the benefit of that research and, in the long run, the deer themselves, and at no risk of inhumane treatment. Therefore, I am pleased to understand from my hon. Friend that provision will be made in the Bill for scientific research on deer to be carried out by suitably qualified persons other than veterinarians.

We have, therefore, no quarrels with the main aims of the Bill—to protect deer from cruelty and the activities of commercial poachers. These aims are quite unobjectionable. We are not convinced, however, that the Bill is yet in a form which is completely acceptable.

We appreciate that this is the latest of a number of attempts by the promoters to replace the 1963 Act by improved legislation. Despite the long history of the Bill and its considerable revision over the past few years, if it is to reach the statute book it must do so in a form which takes full account of the requirements of those parties with a legitimate interest in deer. I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises that, and I am reassured that he is prepared to amend the Bill at a later stage to meet those requirements. On that basis we do not wish to oppose its Second Reading.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having drawn a place in the ballot. Although there was a limited amount of time available to him to explain his Bill, he did so in a clear and succinct manner, as we would expect of him. This is obviously a subject on which he feels very strongly. He is seeking to promote measures which will be of real value to the community. The fact that today we have had two measures before the House concerned with animal protection shows that it is a matter about which this country cares deeply.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).