HC Deb 05 July 1991 vol 194 cc575-92

Lords amendment: No. 9, in page 2, line 32, after ("1990") insert ("or, as respects Scotland, section 19(1) of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972").

Mr. Roy Hughes

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment clarifies the Scottish position.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 10, in page 2, line 49, at end insert— ("(j) for the purpose of the preservation, or archaeological investigation, of a monument scheduled under section 1 of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, to interfere with a badger sett within an area specified in the licence by any means so specified.")

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 11 to 15.

Mr. Roy Hughes

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment is an important provision that would ensure that archaeological sites are not endangered. I do not think that there is anything controversial about that.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I welcome the amendment, which is an important provision. It is especially important that there is a licensing system for people to stop badger setts for the purpose of controlling foxes. The system should be properly administered and licences should be made available in appropriate circumstances to appropriately qualified people.

The amendments, which were tabled jointly in the other place by the noble Lord Mancroft and my noble Friend Lord Houghton, clarify and improve the system under which licences may be issued permitting interference with badger setts for the purpose of controlling foxes. The amendments were a response to great concern expressed in another place that the licensing system should be sufficiently practical and sensible to ensure that fox control in upland areas could continue. Hon. Members will be aware that that concern is most relevant to sheep worrying in the upland areas. My noble Friend Lord Swinton moved an amendment which would have given a general licence to landowners, occupiers, and other authorised people to interfere with a badger sett in the spring for the purpose of controlling foxes. However, he withdrew it so that the compromise amendment No. 10 could be agreed, and I am delighted that it was.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the criteria by which licence applications are assessed and granted will be identical for England, Scotland and Wales?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I cannot, because that point is not one which I have considered, but so far as I am aware the criteria are the same. If the hon. Gentleman has any reason to doubt that, we had better discuss the point fairly rapidly, before the Bill progresses any further.

The Bill makes it an offence to enter a terrier into a badger sett. If foxes or rabbits occupy one part of a large sett and the other part is currently used by a badger, the sett will be protected and the foxes or rabbits may not be taken out with the use of a terrier. Similarly, if a fox that has taken lambs runs to ground in a live badger sett, it cannot be got out except under a licence from the Ministry of Agriculture or the equivalent authority in Scotland.

The Bill already makes provision to ensure that under section 9 of the Badger Act 1973, a licence may be granted to allow a person to interfere with a badger sett for the purpose of preventing serious damage to land, crops, poultry, or any other form of property. However, although livestock is property, wild game and other ground nesting birds are not—so that fox control to protect those birds which in any way interferes with a badger sett would be unlawful and could not be licensed unless the amendments were made.

The Ministry of Agriculture has not been required to issue licences in those circumstances until now because badger setts have not been protected. The licensing system was designed to meet rare situations where farmers wanted to remove a rogue badger, and not to deal with the thousands of farmers and keepers who need to control foxes in or near badger setts. I emphasise the word "near" because it is important that rabbits and foxes near badger setts can be controlled and that people do not put themselves at risk of prosecution because a badger sett is near the place where they are operating.

Although the definition of a badger sett is now much improved, considerable concern remains that persons involved in legitimate fox control would constantly run the risk of prosecution—especially if taking foxes out of places that badgers also occupy, or if badgers live nearby. Such persons would need a licence not so much to interfere with the sett directly but to enable them to operate at all.

Foxes and badgers are becoming more prolific, and although the Ministry of Agriculture indicated that it is willing to review the issue of licences, it is clear that the only practicable way to ensure that legitimate fox control can continue is to amend the licensing procedure so that the grounds on which licences are issued are clear.

The amendments will allow the Ministry and its Scottish equivalent, or the Nature Conservancy Council, to issue a licence to permit a person, but not organisations, to interfere with a badger sett for the purpose of controlling foxes in order to protect livestock, game and wildlife. Without the amendments, licences would have to be applied for under the existing provisions in section 9. The condition of such a licence—to prevent serious damage to property—means that, in each case, the applicant would have to go to great lengths to show that foxes are causing serious damage to his lambs. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) queried the extent of that damage, but my hon. Friends and I are sure that lamb damage is done by foxes throughout the country.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

How will the Ministry or the Nature Conservancy Council establish the bona fides of licence applications? Will they simply take the word of the landowner, or will they make an on-site inspection themselves?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

It is a matter of concern to us all that those who are issued with licences are fit and proper persons to receive them. I will deal with that point later.

I had three lambs taken from the park around my house this spring, undoubtedly by foxes. We found the head of one lamb, but the carcase had been entirely removed. That is a feature of fox taking—it is not how dogs behave, or any other predator.

Mr. Tony Banks

Or one of the hon. Gentleman's hungry constituents.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

A hungry constituent would have to walk a few miles to reach the farm to which I am referring. In any event, I am sure that my constituents are extremely confident that the Government's economic policies will ensure that they do not go hungry.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) accepts that a fox sometimes takes a lamb, but that the extent of that damage is overstated. He made the point that he would welcome an inquiry to establish the true facts.

11.45 am
Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I accept that that is what the hon. Member for Wentworth said, and I did not mean to misrepresent him. I merely stated that the hon. Gentleman queried the contention that lamb damage is a significant factor in the need for fox control.

It is all very well considering fox damage in relation to a big area and a large number of sheep, but it is usually a particular fox that is doing the damage in one area. It is of no comfort to the wretched farmer whose sheep are the target for that fox if 20 neighbouring farmers experience no such trouble. The killing of 20 or 30 lambs out of a population of 500 or 600, or of 2,000 or 3,000 may not be considered significant—but it is, if the losses are suffered by one farmer.

Mr. Bellingham

Is my hon. Friend aware that foxes kill not only sheep but other animals—particularly birds such as geese? One of my constituents has an ornamental lake which provides a home for several species of extremely valuable geese—some of which are worth more than £200 apiece. This nesting season, nine separate geese on their nests were destroyed by foxes, one by one, with the result that only one goose managed to bring a litter on. Despite my constituent's best endeavours to secure the area against foxes, with the erection of fences and all sorts of other ingenious measures to prevent the foxes from gaining access, they managed to do so every time, causing a great amount of damage and financial loss.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

My hon. Friend is right in saying that poultry in particular are a target for foxes, and it also needs to be emphasised that foxes are one of the animals that kill for fun. When they break into a poultry run, they not only take two or three chickens or geese to satisfy their hunger but kill as many as they can for the sheer joy and pleasure of doing so. The public are mistaken if they believe that foxes are poor little animals that only kill to feed themselves as necessary. Much of the killing done by foxes of lambs, poultry and other animals is for pleasure —and in much larger numbers than is necessary for survival.

A licence granted under the amendments would not permit the killing, injuring or taking of badgers, but the licensing authority is empowered to lay down any conditions as to how the sett may be interfered with, and must specify the area to which the licence applies. The key difference between the amendments under consideration and that of my noble Friend Lord Swinton is that they leave the issuing of licences to the discretion of the licensing authority, whereas my noble Friend's amendments would have made their issuing compulsory but set down conditions to ensure that badgers were not harmed and would have enabled licensing authority to refuse a licence to unsuitable people. Amendment No. 10 states that no licence issued under the Badgers Act 1973 shall be "unreasonably withheld or revoked".

Speaking for the Government on Report in another place, Lord Astor said that he expected that a condition of the licence would be that the person authorised should take reasonable care to avoid causing harm to a badger. The licence might also specify what may or may not be done to a badger sett—for example, the sett should not be destroyed and any accidental damage to it should be rectified as soon as possible. We all agree that badger setts should be fully protected from damage during these operations.

I accept that licences should specify that minimal damage be caused to setts and that the least possible disturbance be caused to badgers. But we should not make the conditions so restrictive or unrealistic as to make the job of fox control impossible. Inevitably fox control in badger setts will cause some disturbance, which is why a licence is necessary in the first place, but it does not harm badgers when undertaken responsibly. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) rightly said, it is essential that only the right people be issued with these licences and that the terms and conditions in them be fulfilled.

Fox control has not just been invented; it will happen in future, it is happening now, and it has happened for centuries. It always has been and it will remain an essential part of country life. Foxes and badgers are on the increase in upland areas and throughout large parts of the country.

They are not threatened species. There are many thousands of both types of animal in the countryside and I sincerely hope that they will continue to flourish. But it is a fact that both foxes and badgers—I emphasise the latter—thrive best in the best hunting conditions because the balance of nature is maintained by those with an interest in country sport and in the conservation of the countryside, who want to ensure that there is a good supply of wildlife but not in such quantities as to throw out of balance the other species in an area. That applies especially to foxes, but also to kites, eagles and buzzards. It is important that they be preserved but also that they do not grow to such numbers as might threaten other species. The role of the licence is important in the keeping of this balance.

It should be emphasised that licences are not necessarily sought to dig for foxes in what are obviously active badger setts, although that may be necessary. Licences are needed as much to ensure that legitimate people engaged in fox control are not prosecuted if, for instance, they enter terriers into a large area with badgers at one end and foxes or rabbits at the other. It is not only the badger sett but the operations that are necessary around it which render the amendments so necessary.

Mr. Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

My hon. Friend said earlier that licences would be issued to individuals but not to corporate bodies. Will they be issued to individuals on behalf of such bodies so that it will be easier to prosecute just one person?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I confess that I cannot answer that question. The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) may be able to enlighten my hon. Friend. I should have thought that it must have to do with ensuring that the person participating in the activity is the licensed person so that it is easier to keep tabs on him and ensure that he operates properly under the terms of the licence.

Who should be licensed? This is a fairly thorny problem, and one which hon. Members on both sides of the House will watch closely. It is no more in the interests of the sporting community than of other participants in the debate that people who are not fit and proper should be given licences, because they will give us all a bad name if they abuse their privilege.

There is general agreement that certain persons should not be granted licences—for instance, people convicted of offences against badgers or other wildlife. However, the British Field Sports Society, of which I am chairman, is extremely anxious that reputable people engaged in fox control should be able to obtain licences. Professional gamekeepers, hunt servants and members of fox destruction societies must be able to obtain licences provided that they are fit and proper people to hold them. I know that the Government have accepted that idea. Lord Astor told the other place that we need to be confident that anyone authorised to interfere with a badger sett for the purpose of fox control is suitable and responsible, and that would include gamekeepers, farmers, hunts, fox destruction organisations and any other suitable people. It is far more sensible to license these individuals for a particular area than to license the individual farmer or occupier who may be suffering problems caused by foxes. The administrative problems involved in issuing licences and vetting applicants must be kept within reasonable bounds.

I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has returned, because I come now to the subject about which he asked me. To insist on every individual occupier being the holder of a licence would lead to far too many licences. A farmer or occupier may not want to do the job himself and the badger sett in or near which the fox has taken refuge may not even be on his own land. It therefore makes every kind of sense that the person charged with the job of removing the fox from the badger sett or from the area of the badger sett should hold the licence.

How long should licences be issued for? As with shotgun licences and other forms of licence, the issuing of these licences must not create a huge administrative burden. I see no reason why a licence should be limited to a short time. The hon. Member for Newport, West will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think that the time has been specified, so it will be up to the authorities concerned, especially the Ministry of Agriculture, to decide the length of validity of the licences, and we shall all want to put our own views on the matter.

Mr. Tony Banks

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having left the Chamber for a few moments—a grateful constituent has just brought me a sheep's head—but I was wondering whether he had told the House while I was away how the licences will be operated. Will there be a ministerial visit or a visit by the Nature Conservancy Council, or will a licence just be granted on the say-so of the applicant?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

That, too, is a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture. The Bill does not specify how this will be managed. Like others, I wonder whether it is right that responsibility for all these activities to do with animals should be so diffusely held. It is sad that no Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture is here today to help my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who will give us the Government's view. I do not know whether she knows what her colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture have in mind. No doubt she will enlighten us in a moment, but we shall have to explore the matter thoroughly. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West will have strong views to put to the Ministry, as will I.

I hope that we may say that we have reached common ground at least in so far as believing that it should be administratively simple to issue licences and to enable fit and proper people to hold them. We should not put too great a burden on the Ministry or on the NCC. The process must be monitored, however, to ensure that unfit people do not hold licences.

It is important that when the need for licences cannot be foreseen they can be granted speedily. That will remain at the discretion of the licence authorities. A rogue fox could cause serious lamb losses or damage to ground nesting birds during a delay of a few weeks. Once we know that a fox is operating in a given area he is likely to come back and do a great deal more damage unless he is killed. It is essential, therefore, that if there is a badger sett somewhere in the area, destruction of the fox is carried out speedily before too much damage is done to the farmer's flock. I do not think that that has been decided yet. I am concerned that we should ensure that licences are issued speedily, where appropriate.

In most cases, gamekeepers, members of fox destruction societies and hunt staff will need a general licence in advance of a problem with a fox in or near a badger sett. The licences must run for a reasonable period— I should have thought at least on an annual basis. In the other place Lord Astor was able to confirm that licences would be issued in advance, and for a prolonged period, where regular fox control, for protection, may risk occasional interference with badger setts. I hope that such licences will be issued to the right people.

I am also a little concerned about the arrangements between licensing authorities. The Bill does not make it clear whether the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be the authority or whether, in given areas, it will be the Nature Conservancy Council. Before the Bill is on the statute book the Government should provide greater definition so that that point can be clarified.

Dr. Godman

Amendment No. 15 states that (6) A licence under this section shall not be unreasonably withheld or revoked". Could it not be that a person who feels that his application is entirely genuine has his application rejected and that he is then in a position to argue that it has been unreasonably withheld? Where would he take his case? Would there be an appeals system?

12 noon

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

As the law stands, if I understand it correctly, if there is a provision that the Government may not act in a certain way but they do, there is recourse to the courts. How simple it would be to invoke that procedure I do not know, in the light of the generalities with which we have been dealing. We shall need to look closely at that point. It may be in everyone's interest that an arbitration system should be established. Nothing in the Bill would prevent that from being done, if the Government felt it to be appropriate. As an ex-practising lawyer, I am well aware of both the expense and the delay that can result from having to apply to the courts in such instances. I should much prefer an arbitration panel to decide at first instance whether a person had been unreasonably dealt with. If the arbitrator felt that that person had been unreasonably dealt with, that would be a much simpler, swifter and cheaper procedure, which I should welcome.

There is the question of who is to be the licensing authority, and in what circumstances. The position is not yet entirely satisfactory. We are not clear how licensing will work. None the less, I welcome these clauses, as amended. I am sure that they will set up a structure that can resolve these matters, with the assistance of the Minister. We shall have to get together to ensure that the Minister is aware of the needs of those who desire licences and of those who are rightly anxious that the wrong people should be prevented from obtaining them. A balance will have to be established to ensure that only those people who operate properly are allowed to have licences, and that when they are operating properly they should be allowed to get their licences without undue hindrance or difficulty and certainly not be refused without good grounds for doing so.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) have all mentioned the damage that is caused by foxes in the countryside. We heard the touching story of the geese of a constituent of the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West. I was the proud possessor of two geese at one time. They were bought for me. Unfortunately, Mrs. Banks imposed a block on them being brought home to my small garden in Forest Gate, on the ground that she thought that they were rather bad-tempered and frightening beasts. While they were being kept my two lovely geese were taken—it was alleged at the time, by badgers. I do not know who is telling the truth, but I do not bear badgers any ill will because they took my two geese. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West obviously feels upset about foxes, even though the geese he cited were not his.

I am not sure about the extent to which anecdotal evidence is admissible about fox damage. I accept that some damage is caused by foxes, but until there is a far more accurate scientific assessment, we are left with anecdotal arguments, which do not seem to be the best basis for making good legislation. I understand that a fox's diet is predominantly small rodents. I think that foxes are one of the greatest controllers of rats in the country. Foxes eat worms, carrion, frogs and insects. No doubt they take a sickly lamb from time to time, but that is nature's way of dealing with sick animals.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I think that the hon. Gentleman was out of the Chamber when I told the House that I lost three lambs from my park because of foxes. There is nothing anecdotal about that. It is factual. I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's implication that foxes normally eat insects, worms and frogs and occasionally sickly lambs. The lambs that were taken from my park were perfectly healthy—until they were eaten by the fox.

Mr. Banks

I was in the Chamber when the hon. Gentleman told the sad tale about the three lambs that he had lost. He said that all that was left was a severed head. Either someone was using a lamb for a rehearsal for "The Godfather", or one of his hungrier constituents may have decided to consume the carcase. I do not intend to reduce this to a Committee debate, but to what extent was the hon. Gentleman aware of the health of those lambs? He may say that they were bouncing around, as frisky as ever, and just waiting to end up on a plate with some new potatoes and mint sauce, but they may have been slightly sickly and that was why the fox took them.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

The lambs were inspected daily. They were frisky, romping about and perfectly healthy until they were eaten. It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman's hungry constituents were therefore unable to come along and purchase them.

Mr. Banks

I still maintain that it may have been my constituents who took them. That is something that my constituents are wont to do from time to time. A little bit of poaching from the hon. Gentleman, since he can afford it, is not something that I would condemn unqualifiedly in this House. Those lambs, in the short term, would probably have been dead, anyway. Instead of being consumed by foxes, they would undoubtedly have been consumed by the hon. Member for Upminister in perhaps more salubrious surroundings than a field.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that foxes also have the right to live. The fox is indigenous to this country. There have been times when foxes have been introduced into certain areas for fox hunters. Under the circumstances, one is being harsh on foxes. They have the right to exist. Nature maintains a certain balance. We are constantly interfering with that balance. I merely wanted to say a word on their behalf, and in defence of foxes, since few hon. Members are prepared to defend them. I am. I am sure that, if they were able to vote, they would all vote for me in Newham, North-West.

On this occasion, I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Upminster about amendments Nos. 13 and 15 on licensing. We share his concern, but perhaps for completely different reasons. Who knows? I have some questions for the Minister, although I understand her difficulties. Amendment No. 13 mentions every Department but hers, the Home Department. [Interruption.] The sartorial wear of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is getting better and better. He is wearing a very snazzy shirt. I am surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you did not remember Mr. Speaker's ruling about hon. Members, however eminent, walking into this place without their jackets. However, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did—as did the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West, the epitome of sartorial elegance.

Mr. Bellingham


Mr. Banks

No doubt the hon. Gentleman intends to make one of his telling points.

Mr. Bellingham

Although the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is always immaculately dressed, his hair is always well groomed and he is a picture of sartorial elegance, some of his colleagues flout Mr. Speaker's ruling by coming into the Chamber wearing trainers and no ties and looking like soccer hooligans. Will he comment on how his colleagues are normally dressed on a Tuesday or Thursday in the middle of summer?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will not be diverted from the amendments.

Mr. Banks

Some of my best friends are soccer hooligans; it was unworthy of the hon. Gentleman to make that point.

I share some of the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Upminster. The Minister is the only Minister who does not appear to have responsibility, so it is unfortunate that she must reply to the debate. No Minister from Scotland, Wales, MAFF, or, on behalf of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Department of the Environment, is here to reply. I am aware of the Minister's competence, so no doubt she will be able to answer my questions.

I am concerned about the process by which applications for licences will be made. Will someone have to produce documentary or filmed evidence? Will a MAFF official have to make a physical inspection before granting a licence? I am distrustful of MAFF and of its attitude to badgers. Many people at the Ministry are still smarting about being made to cease gassing badgers in order to eliminate bovine tuberculosis. Plenty of evidence from around the world showed that badgers were not a major contributory factor in the spread of bovine TB. That problem seems to have disappeared and to have been replaced by other problems such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. At least no one said that badgers were responsible for that.

I distrust MAFF, so I want to know how the process will operate. It would be preposterous if someone were granted a licence because they were a farm owner or a trustworthy type of fellow who hunted for lambs' heads with the hon. Member for Upminster. That seems to be too slack. I should like to know what specific proposals will be made for licence applications.

The hon. Member for Upminster said that the licence application was administratively simple. There is a difference between administratively simple and wholly permissive. It worries me that in the attempt to make applications administratively simple, they will be granted almost as soon as they are made. Lords amendment No. 15 says that a licence shall not be unreasonably withheld or revoked. The hon. Member for Upminster, among his many talents, is not only a farmer but a lawyer. From time to time, he is able to squeeze in being a Member of Parliament—and a good one at that. He knows better than I do what is reasonable and has probably earned a lot of money from arguing it. I do not like such a word to appear in legislation because it is too open and allows too many lawyers to make too many fat fees.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

This is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has commented on my activities, so perhaps I should put the record straight. I have not practised as a lawyer since I became an hon. Member. His remarks, are therefore not well founded.

Mr. Banks

Many defendants are probably grateful for that.

One must ask about reasonableness and the process. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) has accepted the Lords amendments. In many respects, he had no choice because of the problems that are associated with getting a Bill on to the statute book. He has done wonderfully well—far better than I did, but he is more reasonable than I am, which no doubt assisted him.

I am unhappy about the Lords amendments, and in normal circumstances I would have voted against them. On this occasion, I cannot do so, but I believe that we shall have to return to this subject when we try to toughen the badger setts legislation.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief intervention at this late stage of the Bill, which is a good measure in so far as it has tightened provisions to safeguard badgers and has met some of the difficult objections.

I declare an interest as the owner of a considerable badger sett that is just behind my house. If anecdotal evidence is necessary, not so many weeks ago I was amused and enjoyed seeing four pairs of sharp little eyes pointing out of the sett that belonged not to badgers but to fox cubs. Frequently, the sett behind my house is occupied by one or the other.

12.15 pm

I have been asked to intervene to raise a problem that upsets and worries a number of my constituents—the urban badger sett. Those who live near such a sett are extremely worried about the damage that badgers cause. When legislation to protect the badger was introduced a few years ago, I took much trouble to find out how I could help my constituents, whose allotments, gardens and vegetables were being chewed up by badgers.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was able to help by catching some of the badgers and releasing them in a part of the country where there was a sett and where they could do no damage to my constituents' gardens and allotments. Will that still be possible under the licensing system?

I have written to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the problem. My constituents are worried about a large urban badger sett in a part of my constituency. Will MAFF officials or experts be able to capture some of those badgers, which have become prolific this year, and remove them to another area of the country where they will do no harm? Under the terms of the Bill, is that regarded as harmful to the badger or will it still be possible to license such activity?

Once badgers have been removed, their setts are liable to be taken over by rabbits, which is a nuisance, but there are means of overcoming that problem.

I received a deputation in my constituency of genuinely desperate people who wanted to strengthen the law to safeguard badgers against the detestable crime of badger baiting, which no one has time for. A few years ago, badgers in my constituency were transported elsewhere, but will it still be legitimate to do so under the licensing system proposed in the amendment?

Dr. Godman

I promise to be brief. A number of my young constituents urged me to be here this morning to support the Bill.

I should like to put a couple of questions to the Minister about my concerns on the issuing of licences. I asked the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) some questions about the amendments. As the Minister will know, they refer to the Secretary of State for Scotland and/or the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland being the licensors. Such issues are important and I ask the Minister to impress upon the different Departments the need for identical criteria under which licence applications are assessed, granted or rejected. Unlike the hon. Member for Upminster, I am not a lawyer. I readily acknowledge that we have two legal systems—the English and the Scottish—but nevertheless it is essential that the criteria for assessing such licence applications are identical.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

At the moment, it seems that that is still in the melting pot, as neither the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food nor its Scottish counterpart has made any decisions about the criteria that are to be applied. I endorse what the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said. It is important that the criteria for both parts of the United Kingdom are identical.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his fine intervention. If a Scottish applicant were rejected because of certain criteria that do not apply in the assessment of English or Welsh licences, he or she would have a pretty powerful case for appealing against such a decision. I know that the Minister cannot answer on behalf of her Scottish ministerial colleagues, but I should be grateful if she would make my remarks known to them in her characteristically courteous way.

I now deal with the issue of "a suitable person". Again, when referring to those who should be excluded from holding licences, the hon. Member for Upminster mentioned people who have criminal records, perhaps those who have convictions for poaching and especially for poaching with vicious traps. I should have thought that such a person would be rejected out of hand.

I hope that the officials who issue licences will be competent in the ways of country living and country activities, because local authorities could have to issue licences under the regulations. Competence is an important issue.

I asked the hon. Member for Upminster some questions about amendment No. 15 regarding the decisions made by officials to withhold or to revoke a licence. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the length of time that a licence would endure. A licence could have to be revoked because of an action committed by the licensee. I presume that such a person would have grounds for an appeal under the amendment and that he or she could claim that the licence had been unreasonably revoked.

In response to an intervention, the hon. Gentleman mentioned an arbitration system. An appeals procedure must be built into the licensing system, but it must not add to the bureaucracy of that system or make it much more cumbersome either to apply for a licence or for the authorities to revoke that licence if the holder has acted improperly. My hon. Friend the Member for Newhatn, North-West (Mr. Banks) talked about what is reasonable. Amendment No. 15 would require that we determine what is unreasonable, which might be even more difficult. The Scottish Office, the Welsh Office, the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and others must work hand in glove when dealing with licensing. The criteria to be satisfied before a licence is granted must be tough. The officials who deal with the granting of licences must be competent in such matters. If possible, the criteria must be identical in each of the three nations. If licences `are revoked or withheld there must be an appeals procedure, but it should not be a cumbersome addition to the system of granting, revoking or withholding licences.

Mr. Jopling

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen), I must declare an interest as I own a farm on which there is a badger sett which I have long tried to preserve, sometimes without success. Sometimes it is occupied by rabbits and sometimes by foxes, but I am always glad when the badgers come back.

I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) agreed with the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) in doubting whether foxes cause ravages to lambs in upland areas. I confess that I was astonished to hear that two hon. Members doubt that, as it is understood that that is what happens in the Lake district. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Newham, North-West or his hon. Friend have spoken to upland farmers—

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Jopling

I shall develop my argument and then I shall give way. One needs only to talk to upland farmers to hear that when they round up their flocks on the fells, they discover that large numbers of lambs have been savaged by foxes. Their first reaction is to ring the hunt to ask it to do something. The hunts are continually requested to move round the fells and mountainous areas to deal with foxes that are causing problems. If the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, doubts that, I will be most delighted to facilitate a visit by him to the Lake district. I do not know what he is doing on 8 August. I am the president of the Lake district sheepdog trials which will take place near Windermere and if he would like to come, I can arrange for a large number of farmers to talk to him—

Mr. Bellingham

Have him come and stay.

Mr. Jopling

I shall be glad for him to come and stay if he wishes to do so. It is the 100th celebration this year of the Lake district sheepdog trials. If he wants to come and talk to the farmers I shall be delighted to facilitate.

Mr. Tony Banks

That is the best offer that I have had for a long time. I will accept that offer and a pint of scrumpy, or whatever delightful brew is drunk in the right hon. Gentleman's area, will be imbibed by me as well. I shall have a good day out. He is right. There are not many upland farmers in Newham—indeed, there is not much in the way of uplands. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) was that there should be more scientific evidence. If that shows that the damage to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is taking place there must be ways of dealing with it. However, I doubt whether the best way in which to deal with it—if it is as widespread as the right hon. Gentleman suggests—is to bring in the hunt.

12.30 pm
Mr. Jopling

The wisdom and the experience of upland farmers in the Lake district is infinitely more compelling than all the scientific evidence that the rather clever chaps in sandals can put together. I recommend the hon. Member for Newham, North-West to talk to farmers so that he hears what happens on the ground.

The amendments will make it easier to control foxes in the areas in which it is absolutely essential to do so. I will not go into all the details about the importance of ensuring that foxes are properly controlled in upland areas, as I made that clear in my previous remarks. However, I welcome Lords amendment No. 11, which I am sure will make it easier to control foxes in the area that I represent where the livelihood of the local population is so dependent on the proper control of foxes.

I should like to address a question to the promoter of the Bill—the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes)—about Lords amendment No. 13, which deals with who issues licences. The amendment describes two bodies for England, five for Wales and two for Scotland. Will the two bodies decide between themselves who will issue the licences, or will both of them issue licences? I can envisage a situation in which a thoroughly undesirable person with convictions for badger baiting—someone with whom none of us would have any sympathy—hears, as word gets round in the local community, that perhaps the Secretary of State for Wales is an easier touch for a licence than is the Countryside Council for Wales. It is important that if both bodies are to issue licences, it is made clear that they are using the same criteria. None of us wishes to make it made easy for undesirable people to have licences to do those things. I hope that we can have some clarification on that point.

It was wise of the hon. Member for Newport, East to accept this group of amendments, as they will make the Bill much more acceptable in the areas that I represent where the terms of the Bill have caused some anxiety in the past. I hope that because of the wisdom of the hon. Gentleman, those anxieties can now be put at rest.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I shall try to reassure the House by saying something about the licensing proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) said, a new position has been created by the Bill. Because badger setts will be protected under the Bill, licences must be given under the Badgers Act 1973 for the removal of foxes from setts when it is necessary to do so to control the fox population. When the Bill was discussed in another place, a great deal of time was spent on the question of licensing.

A number of hon. Members have asked important questions this morning. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) hoped that the criteria would be clearly set out for all the agencies that will issue licences. The Government do not think that that will be a great problem. Because of the doubts that have been expressed about the Bill's implications for farmers, landowners and moorland gamekeepers, I am happy to repeat the Government's assurances on licensing.

The principal problem that has caused concern lies in ensuring that licences are given for legitimate fox control to protect not only sheep but poultry, game and wild birds. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) referred to that point, and the wife of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is worried about geese. Perhaps Forest Gate has become a geese-free or badger-free zone.

Mr. Tony Banks

It is certainly a Tory-free zone.

Mrs. Rumbold

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's wife will be less worried about geese after the discussions that may take place. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) suggested that we find out the facts.

All those who have been involved with the Bill have learnt that foxes often live alongside badger setts. Often it is not easy to tell whether a hole belongs to a fox or a badger, or both. Farmers whose livestock may be threatened by foxes must be able to take swift action to remove them. Because of the anxieties that were expressed in another place about the basis on which licences might be granted, I tell the House that the Government have held meetings with the Bill's sponsors, including those in the other place. We have offered to help in drafting a suitable amendment. I believe that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) should accept this measure as one that is, on the whole, worthy of us all.

Mr. Roy Hughes

I have expressed my readiness to accept the new amendment. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will notice that in the amendment we are diversifying control to Wales and Scotland. I do not expect that there will be a problem, especially in this age of technology and computers. There will be clear records of who is eligible for a licence and who is not.

Mrs. Rumbold

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving that information—as, I am sure, is my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

I wish to explain how the proposed licensing system will work. In the first place, we will need to be confident that anyone authorised to interfere with a badger sett for the purpose of fox control is suitable and responsible—thus, gamekeepers, farmers, fox hunts and destruction organisations would be considered for a licence, but convicted badger diggers would not. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) will be glad to hear that and to hear that the consultations which have taken place covered the point which he expressed and that all licences will be issued on a common basis. Local authorities will not issue them. Under Lords amendment No. 13, licences can be issued only by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland and conservancy councils. I trust that that news puts to rest one of the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

There is also a provision that any licence under the Badgers Act 1973 should not be unreasonably withheld or revoked. Clearly, licensing authorities must act reasonably. We envisage that licences will be issued, in advance and for a long period, where regular fox control for protection may risk occasional interference with a badger sett. We would, of course, retain the right to revoke such a licence if a problem occurred.

I understand the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen), because it arises not a million miles from my home, although perhaps not so near to my constituency. I assure my hon. Friend that there are powers in the Badgers Act 1973, as well as in the present Bill, to control urban badgers setts that are causing problems.

Mr. Tony Banks

The Minister said that, in certain cases where known fox activity occurs regularly, licences will be granted for a lengthy period. She said that there would be a power to revoke, but did not say anything about a power to monitor or about whether the licences would be monitored. I am concerned that, if open-ended licences are granted, all sorts of abuses could occur. There should be a failsafe mechanism.

Mrs. Rumbold

I understand that, and we shall certainly register that concern when we put together the criteria for granting licences.

We also envisage assessing in advance of lambing the position of sheep farmers whose flocks are in danger from foxes living in badger setts, so that licences may be issued either in advance or speedily when the need arises. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West have a dispute about that. I shall not enter into it, because I am not well versed in countryside issues. I represent an urban constituency and am therefore more concerned with urban than with rural farms; indeed, I am the proud owner of a particularly attractive urban farm.

Mr. Boscawen

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about urban badger setts. May I perhaps be sent information setting out the provisions in the Bill that would allow the actions of which I spoke to be taken?

Mrs. Rumbold

I shall be happy to furnish my hon. Friend with as much information as possible; I shall ensure that a letter is sent to him on Monday.

Licences will not necessarily be restricted to a single sett. Although they will relate to a specified area, that area could include a number of farms.

It goes without saying that licences granted under the provision would not be for the taking or killing of badgers and a condition of the licence might be that the person authorised should take reasonable care to avoid causing harm to a badger. That is another point about which my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is concerned. The licence conditions could also specify just what may, or may not, be done to a badger sett.

Under the present Act, there are different licensing authorities for different situations—in some cases, the Agriculture Departments; in others, the Nature Conservancy Councils.

I note the concern expressed by a number of hon. Members about the fact 1 should be dealing with the Bill and with other matters affecting animals as part of my ministerial responsibilities. I shall certainly register the concern expressed about the allocation of responsibilities to the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other Departments, although I believe that the Home Office is as good a Department as any to deal with these matters and that on this Bill, as on previous Badgers Bills, we have managed to give the promoters some satisfaction. I therefore note the point about responsibilities lying with a number of agencies, but I am not convinced by the argument.

The principle applying to the new licensing agencies will be set out clearly. The licensing authorities will work together as at present to establish common guidelines for issuing licences. The aim is to develop a system that is simple, straightforward and just. We shall consult interested organisations, including those that have played a considerable part in the discussions about the Bill.

We shall consider which licensing authority will be responsible for different areas of licensing. That will be a matter for consultation. In principle, we believe that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will issue licences relating to agricultural land and livestock and that the Nature Conservancy Council will issue licences with regard to wildlife. I should have thought that that was relatively straightforward.

Dr. Godman

Will the licence fee be modest?

Mrs. Rumbold

I cannot comment on that now. It will be a matter for discussion and if the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow wants to raise a point about that, I am sure that he will be able to do so.

Mr. Jopling

As I understood my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, she said that our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will issue licences in respect of agricultural land, while the conservation bodies will grant them in respect of wildlife. Who would be the licensing authority for a game park, which seems to encompass neatly both areas? I was thinking of that sort of case when I made the point a few moments ago.

12.45 pm
Mrs. Rumbold

One of the benefits of this debate is that those points can be made. We must clearly take note of the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and ensure that the responsibility lies with the correct agency. My right hon. Friend made a telling point and we recognise that there will be cases where the areas of responsibility will overlap. There will have to be consultations with the interested parties to decide which licensing authority will issue licences in certain cases.

It is also important to state that the administrative arrangements for licensing must be worked out properly and an amendment has been included, as hon. Members will have noticed, to extend the time to allow the necessary consultation to be conducted over the summer before the Bill comes into force.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West asked whether visits would be paid to licence applicants. I assure him that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will consult interested parties on how licences are issued. In some cases a visit may be necessary, but in others a licence may be issued without a visit. We have yet to finalise the practicalities of that system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) asked whether licences could be issued to individuals or to organisations. That was an interesting question. The answer is that licences would have to be issued to individuals, although they could be issued to named representatives of organisations such as fox destruction societies.

Hon. Members have expressed concerns which I trust that I have answered satisfactorily. The consultations between MAFF, the nature conservancy agencies in England, Scotland and Wales and the interested organisations will lead to satisfactory procedures. This debate has been helpful in identifying concerns that will have been noted by those who will participate in the consultations.

I have just received a note from the people who do not exist and I can inform the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow that the licences will be issued without a fee. That may be of great comfort to him.

I congratulate everyone involved in steering the Bill safely through its various stages in this House and in another place. It is to everyone's credit that we have a measure today that can be supported by all sides. That is a good reflection of the spirit of co-operation that has existed throughout the passage of the Bill. Hon. Members have raised points about which they feel strongly, and answers have been given. There has been a great deal of co-operation to ensure that a sensible measure is put on the statute book.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) for introducing his Bill and for the climate that he has so skilfully created around it. The success of the Bill is a tribute to the part that has been played by him and his advisers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that so many of my hon. Friends are happy to join me in that tribute. I must pay tribute also to my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster and for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison), to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and to various other colleagues for the part that they have played in building the consensus that has now come to fruition.

I know that there has been a lot of debate and quite a bit of hard bargaining behind the scenes, but the achievement is clear for all to see. Finally, and without more ado, I express the Government's view that we are extremely glad that the Bill will soon be on the statute book. Indeed, this Session has been notable for the amount of legislation relating to badgers. This Bill provides increased protection for badgers. The Badgers (Further Protection) Bill will shortly receive Royal Assent and the Criminal Justice Bill contains increased penalties. All round, 1991 has not been a bad year for the badger. Perhaps it could successfully be nominated the Year of the Badger.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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