HC Deb 13 July 1981 vol 8 cc845-8

'Schedule 7, which amends the law relating to the protection of certain mammals, shall have effecef—[Mr. Monro.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hector Monro)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we shall take the following:

New clause 1—Extension of occupier's rights to use firearms

New clause 43—Sheep worrying

Government amendments Nos. 197 to 205, 206 to 212, amendment No. 139, in the title, line 5, after 'animals', insert 'to amend the law relating to the killing of ground game;' and Government amendment No. 213.

Mr. Mortro

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr Farr) moved amendments in Committee to rectify an anomaly arising from the interpretation of the Ground Game Act 1880—that while owners of land can shoot rabbits and hares at night, occupiers cannot. As, for the most part, such non-owning occupiers are tenant farmers who wish to protect their crops, the anomaly is considered to be unjust and in need of remedy. I therefore undertook to see whether an amendment could be drafted to meet the wishes of my hon. Friend and the implications of the Private Member's Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Hooson).

New Clause 40 and amendment No. 197 are paving amendments. The first part of amendment No. 198 gives occupiers in England and Wales the right to shoot ground game at night if they have the written authority of one of the persons with a similar right. That means the owner or the shooting tenant. We have essentially adopted the contents of the Ground Game Bill 1980, sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor, which completed its Commons passage last Session. However, we are providing also for delegation of the right to shoot to a person under section 1 of the 1880 Act, for example, an employee or a member of his household resident on his land. This brings the position at night into line with that during the day. I believe that the amendment meets the wishes of my hon. Friends.

The second part of amendment No. 198 provides for Scotland. At present, no person in Scotland may shoot ground game at night. There is no difference in circumstance which justifies a difference of the degree between England and Wales and Scotland. Accordingly, amendment No. 198 not only gives occupiers, with permission, the right to shoot but gives such rights to the owner of the shooting or a person who has been granted those rights, whether exclusively or otherwise.

I now turn to the third part of amendment No. 198. There was overwhelming support in Committee for the inclusion of a provision aimed at preventing sheep-worrying to supplement what is already provided in the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 and the Animals Act 1971. We indicated in Committee that we accepted in principle new clause 46 and amendments (d) and (e) thereto and would consider also amendment (a), which sought to cover all types of livestock and not only sheep and lambs.

7 pm

The available statistics indicate that the numbers of other types of livestock killed or injured by dogs is much less than those of sheep, and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams), who I understand was representing the views of the National Farmers Union on this point, urged that the provisions which we were debating should only cover sheep. We thought carefully about that, and we agree. We have therefore restricted the amendment to that type of livestock.

In agreeing to table an amendment we were aware that this was likely to present difficult drafting problems, and so it proved, but I believe that the amendment implements all the essential features of the amendments which were supported in Committee.

There was clearly a need, as indicated in Committee by amendment (d), to extend the exemption applicable to persons on public rights of way to other ways used by the public, and our amendment deals with that problem by omitting any reference to ways of any sort.

We have defined "at large" in relation to dogs in fields to mean not on a lead or otherwise under close control". We recognise that the meaning of those last three words cannot be precisely defined, but the phrase is evidently acceptable to the major interests which support the tightening-up of the sheep-worrying legislation, and I believe that the implications will generally be clear. There was some comment in the farming press about sheep dogs, which would, of course, be perfectly entitled to be there under the control of a shepherd or the owner of the sheep.

In his Committee amendment (e), my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough raised a point about the word "lawful". He sought to ensure that dogs being used in connection with poaching activities should not be included within the proposed exception for dogs or hounds being used for sporting purposes. In our amendment the relevant exemption refers to "a working gun dog", and, as poaching is in itself an illegal activity for which the culprits can be prosecuted, it is not considered necessary to cover this point in the amendment.

There are two provisions in the existing 1953 Act, as amended, which it may be useful for me to draw to hon. Members' attention. First, the maximum penalty is £200, which is identical with that proposed in Committee in new clause 46; and, as regards enforcement, it is provided in section 2 that no proceedings shall be brought except by the police, the occupier of the land or the owner of the livestock in question.

As hon. Members will realise, I have not gone into the horrors of sheep-worrying. We expressed our abhorrence in Committee, when we made it clear that we wished to do everything possible to stop attacks on sheep and lambs by wild dogs or dogs behaving intolerably.

The proposed changes not only clarify the issue of ground game and the change in the law. They also, to the best of our ability, fulfil all the undertakings that we gave in Committee about sheep-worrying, which is unacceptable to everyone.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I do not wish to deal with the issue of ground game but I welcome the Government's proposals on sheep-worrying. In Committee I strongly urged that not only was the damage to sheep horrific but that on the urban fringes the damage was equally bad to other livestock. Anyone who has seen ponies or cattle worried or injured will be disappointed that the Government have not included other animals.

The Minister referred to the 1953 legislation. How many prosecutions have there recently been under that legislation? Although the wording in my new clause 43 is slightly wrong—it should refer to section 1(5) of the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act—it would give the Minister wide powers to exempt various areas from the legislation. I gather from an answer that I had today from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that although the exemption has been possible since 1953 the section has never been used, so there does not seem any point in retaining it, unless the Minister intends to use it as a result of the new clause. The section is so imprecisely worded that it would be much better to drop it from the legislation, which would, I believe, strengthen the Government's proposals.

I regret that the Government are applying the provisions only to sheep-worrying and not to the worrying of all livestock, but, with my question about new clause 43, I support the Government's proposals.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I thank the Minister for what he said. I am grateful to him for taking up my suggestion, and I thank him, too, for improving upon it.

I believe that the amendment will cause general satisfaction. I am glad to see from my hon. Friend's letter to me today that the legislation will apply to England, Wales and Scotland. There is a need for a change in the law. The matter was the subject of a Private Member's Bill that completed all its stages in this place. On behalf of those who sponsored that Bill, I thank my hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

I support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). I believe that the scope of the proposal should be wider. For instance, a great deal of harm can be done if a field of heifers is chased by dogs. For the same reason as my hon. Friend, I would not dream of pressing my objection, but it should be expressed. We should demonstrate at an early stage in our consideration of the Bill on Report that we wish to be co-operative. I hope that the co-operation shown by my hon. Friend will be reflected in the Minister's decisions as we proceed with the other amendments, including several in my name.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that he has taken on board the points raised in Committee on the important question of sheep-worrying. A number of interesting views were expressed, some of which looked fairly irreconcilable, but the new clause covers the points and appears to find considerable favour with the farming industry. It gives me great pleasure to see this enlightened step being taken.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

I shall be brief, as we wish to make progress.

Hon. Members who heroically battled through 100 hours in Committee expected the Bill to start at 3.30 pm for us to have proper time to debate it, so it is appropriate that the first subject should be night shooting. My only regret is that we are not dealing with the night shooting of birds, which we discussed at length in Committee and about which on the Labour Benches we feel rather more strongly than we do about the matter pressed on the Government by the hon. Members for Harborough (Mr. Farr). However, we very much appreciate what the Government have done in regard to sheep-worrying. I hope that the House can resolve the matter speedily.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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