HC Deb 05 July 1991 vol 194 cc566-75

Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 2, line 3, leave out "(c)" and insert "(a), (c) or (e)".

Mr. Roy Hughes

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 8.

Mr. Hughes

The amendments deal with the stopping-up process, which is a rather controversial issue. Throughout our proceedings, my task has been to try to reconcile the various interests. I have had to be a bit of an acrobat at times. I do not know whether that qualifies me for the circus, but I hope that a good Bill will result from the efforts made on all sides. I am reliably informed that the present Bill is indeed a good Bill, although we do riot achieve perfection in this world.

I am extremely grateful to Lord Houghton for the way in which he handled the amendments in the other place. Lord Elton was a distinguished Member of this House for many years and has become a legendary figure, not least for his efforts in animal welfare. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) has left the Chamber, because I wanted to pay tribute to his efforts with regard to the Bill. He was a very hard bargainer at times, but he was honest and straightforward, and I am deeply grateful to him.

The animal welfare organisations have assisted me at every stage of the Bill and I am deeply grateful to them. Support for the Bill has been widespread throughout the country. One animal welfare organisation told me that after Third Reading, it received more than 1,000 letters of support for the Bill. That gives some idea of the strength of feeling about the matter.

One particular gentleman who has been very helpful and supportive—and I will name-drop here—is Mr. Phil Drabble. He wrote and spoke to me—

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am most concerned that no Minister from the Foreign Office is present to make a statement about the situation in Yugoslavia. As the House will know, events there are still extremely unstable. There is the potential for probably the worst possible civil war imaginable. There have already been questions about the matter during Foreign Office questions, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has made a statement. However, events are obviously moving very quickly and many people are extremely concerned. I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Why is there no Foreign Office Minister here at 11 am to make a statement about that absolutely crucial issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am not aware of any request from a Minister for a statement on that serious matter, but I am sure what the hon. Gentleman has said will have been heard by the Government Front-Bench spokesmen.

Mr. Arbuthnot

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Following the by-election in Liverpool, Walton yesterday, I understand that an announcement has been made that there is to be an inquiry by the Leader of the Opposition into membership of this House. Have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had a request from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to make a statement about the allocation of Opposition days, because I understand that there is to be a split between the Militant party in the House and the Labour party? Has there been any request from the Leader of the House to make a statement to you?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There has been no request for a statement. May we now return to badgers?

Mr. Roy Hughes

The last time that we discussed the Badgers Bill in the House, there were interruptions caused by the Gulf crisis.

I hope that the Bill will receive its Royal Assent. It will protect those wonderful creatures and their setts. I look forward to its implementation in three months or so.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on the way in which he has conducted the negotiations on the Bill. I am grateful to him for his comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison). He would have appreciated those comments, but sadly he has been called away from the Chamber.

The hon. Member for Newport, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes have worked extremely hard to achieve today's compromise. I appreciate that those who feel strongly about the protection of badgers and who wanted to see the Bill passed in its original form may feel that it is less than what they set out to achieve. On the other hand, those of us who represent country interests and country sports also have strong views about the effect of the Bill on the activities of sportsmen, conservationists, farmers and those who have to live in the countryside.

I believe that the compromise will satisfy all parties. It will strengthen the hand of the law enforcer against those despicable people who take badgers for baiting. We were all united on that purpose. I welcome the fact that the Bill has reached the point where I am sure that we will be able to accept it. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make that point. It was important to put it on the record, although I appreciate that it was not strictly in order as we are considering a small group of Lords amendments.

The amendments are mostly concerned with stopping and the need of those who hunt foxes to stop up badger setts to prevent foxes from entering them. We had long debates and discussions about the best way to achieve that to the maximum advantage of the badger and the fox hunter to ensure that fox hunters and farmers—particularly in Wales—can control foxes. The hon. Member for Newport, East is extremely sympathetic to the needs of Welsh farmers who would have found it almost impossible to control foxes which ravaged flocks of lambs had the Bill not been amended in this way. I welcome the fact that earths can be stopped in the way set out in clause 3, as amended.

I want to explain how we arrived at amendment No. 5, which allows earth stopping to be carried out the night before the day of a hunt. It was originally suggested that stopping should be carried out on the day of the hunt. I know that the hon. Member for Newport, East was a little aggrieved that the amendment was included when it did not appear to have been fully discussed and agreed. I offer him our apologies for that. I can assure him that that was not intended. Lord Mancroft had discussed the matter with Lord Houghton and they appeared to reach an agreement, which unfortunately did not hold.

None the less, I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will not inhibit the value of his Bill. I am sure that it will not make it any more difficult to control badger baiters and those who unlawfully dig for badgers and attempt to get at them for unlawful purposes. Having been amended in this way, the Bill will be invaluable for the proper practice of earth stopping.

As the House will be aware, roughly speaking, the Bill now states that earths can be stopped on the day of the hunt with bundles of twigs and they can be stopped the night before using loose material—usually a loose filling of earth. That is a very sensible agreement. If twigs and sticks had been used to stop an earth the night before, the badger would not have been able to move them, and it might have been stuck for rather longer than anyone would want to see it stuck in the event of the earth being occupied, or if it was out and wanted to return home. As loose earth is to be used, and as badgers are extremely formidable diggers, I am sure that, if a badger is caught by earth stopping that has been properly carried out the night before, it will be able to dig itself out.

In the countryside, as a result of changing ways, there is a substantial shortage of people who are experienced in earth stopping and are prepared to stop earths for a hunt. Therefore, there would have been an enormous strain on the resources of a hunt had the time limit for stopping remained the day of the hunt. It would have been too much to ask one or two earth stoppers to stop all the earths and setts during that time. Under such a time limit, stopping could not have been carried out properly. It was therefore very important that an amendment was included in the Bill to ensure that the earth stopper can fill the entrances to the earths and setts as necessary, and that that is done properly. That is as important for the animal as it is for the earth stopper.

I very much welcome clause 3, as amended. It will fulfil the purposes of those who introduced the Bill and those of us who sought to adjust it to the needs of those living in the countryside. I welcome the Lords amendments.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) for his efforts. In the last Session of this Parliament, I tried to be the kind of go-between that the hon. Gentleman has found himself having more time-consumingly to be. I remember the almost extraordinary scenes when I tried to negotiate a compromise form of wording for the badgers legislation then introduced by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). Upstairs in Committee, manuscript amendments were whistling about the Committee Room to and from advisers and civil servants. Any hon. Member trespassing with the intention of legislating on this matter knew in advance that he or she was entering what might be called a countryside minefield. The prospect of the Bill emerging unscathed is therefore extremely welcome.

I have three comments about the different amendments in the group. First, it is perfectly proper to debate the definition of the sorts of material that can be used temporarily to stop sett entrances to prevent foxes from entering them during hunts. Amendment No. 4 changes the terminology from "clean loose" to "untainted", which seems generally acceptable.

My second point is more controversial. The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) said that amendment No. 5 had been the subject of some sort of ambush in the other place—I do not mean that pejoratively. The amendment was tabled at a late stage to change the deadline for the stopping up from the day of the hunt in question to the middle of the day preceding the day of the hunt. I know that that caused some people some concern, because it obviously extends the period during which the sett is unavailable to the badger and can be interfered with in other ways. It would have been better if we could have introduced provisions to apply only on the day of the hunt. We shall have to watch the way in which the provisions are implemented, to ensure that there is no abuse.

I can understand the logic of saying that if those of us who are legislators accept the principle of stopping up in connection with fox hunting, it is better to do that on the day before the hunt, rather than risk it being done early on the morning of the hunt, because stopping up that is carried out in haste in the morning might be worse and more destructive for the sett than work that is carried out more carefully on the day before. On behalf of those who are keen to give the maximum protection to setts, I stress that our acceptance of that logic is not to be taken as a sign that we are giving people a licence to do anything other than the law permits.

My third point relates to who has the authority over that activity. Amendment No. 7 expands the definition of those who have that authority from the current definition given in clause 3, which refers to the person is so doing with the consent of the landowner and is authorised by a Hunt recognised by the Masters of Fox Hounds Association who shall keep a register of all such persons. The amendment broadens that definition to include those who are recognised by the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles or the Central Committee of Fell Packs. That is to ensure that, in different parts of the country, other categories of people can be included on the register.

I turn now to a point that we debated last year, both in Committee and in the Chamber, and which we have debated again this year. I refer to the principle that a responsible public body, which is recognised by everybody, should keep the register. That would ensure accountability, and nobody could then say, "I have been given permission to do that," without there being some provision for tracking that person's identity and authority. It is important that all stopping-up activities can be checked and authorised.

Finally, this is the second private Member's Bill that we have considered this morning and, like the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill, the Badgers Bill is welcome. However, it is an anomaly of the British administrative system that different Ministers are responsible for those two Bills. Naturally, I welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) to the Treasury Bench. However, when we discussed the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, the relevant Department was the Department of the Environment. Having moved to a discussion of badgers, which one might think is equally a matter relating to wildlife and the countryside, we find that a Home Office Minister is put in charge. That suggests that there might be scope for a little reform in the definition of ministerial responsibilities.

My party certainly thinks that that is needed, and I hope that the Government will contemplate that before the next election. Perhaps the Tory manifesto—and equally the Labour manifesto—might suggest linking animal and nature issues in one Department. To be honest, I do not think that the Home Office would mind geting rid of its responsibility for animals, as they have caused it a fair amount of trouble in recent months.

11.15 am
Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I begin by apologising to the House. As a result of leaving the Chamber for a few minutes to attend an important meeting outside, I regret that I did not realise that the debate on the second group of amendments had begun, so I am afraid that I speak having committed a discourtesy to those hon. Members who have already spoken.

My comments about this group of amendments reflect the core of my reservations about the Bill and its predecessors. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on having brought his Bill so far. I know only too well the difficulties of getting a private Member's Bill on to the statute book and I very much welcome his Bill.

Like all my colleagues, over the years I have received a good deal of correspondence from constituents who have been keen to do something to assist the cause of badgers. I have always warmly supported that cause, but with one reservation which I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman. Nevertheless, as I said, I am delighted that the Bill will soon be on the statute book.

Before turning to the points that cause me particular concern, I must advise the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that he is not alone in being mystified by the intricacies of ministerial responsibilities for matters relating to animals, wildlife and the countryside. When I served at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for a time I was the Minister with responsibility for dogs. It was during that period that the Department gave up its responsibility for dogs—with a good deal of relief. I have a suspicion that in the four years since I have left the Department, my two successors have breathed a great sigh of relief that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food no longer deals with dogs and that that responsibility has been passed to the Home Office which, I am sure, is much better able to deal with it. That is certainly the argument that I used at the time.

My great reservation about the Bill is that not only is it trying to help badgers, which I am sure is what we all want, but at the same time it does not want the control of foxes in certain parts of the country, such as my constituency, to be made more difficult. My constituency contains most of the southern parts of the English Lake district—I think that it is the most beautiful part of the British Isles. People visit it to enjoy its wonderful scenery and amenities. One of the things that they like to see are the sheep grazing on the fells and mountains. Not enough people realise that if it were not for a continual, hard and tough policy of controlling foxes on those fells and mountains, sheep farming would be almost impossible there. The hon. Member for Newport, East knows Wales well and will be aware that the successful farming of sheep on mountainous land depends entirely on controlling foxes which can cause the most dreadful, savage and cruel depredations in the spring. It is almost entirely because of the need to protect sheep on the fells—lambs especially —from foxes that we have fell packs. They carry out the essential job of controlling foxes and making sheep farming possible.

If I were to launch into a dissertation on the current problems of sheep farming on the fells, you might say to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I was out of order. That being so, I shall merely say that sheep farming in mountainous areas has never been more difficult in my lifetime, despite the literally hundreds of millions of pounds being poured by the European Community and by the Government into the support of upland farms.

Only two weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending a meeting that was organised by National Trust tenants in Great Langdale in my constituency. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was kind enough to attend, and she made an excellent speech. It was obvious, however, that great difficulties were being experienced in controlling foxes.

The hon. Member for Newport, East knows that I am concerned that controlling badgers under the welcome provisions of the Bill might mean that controlling foxes in upland areas will become a good deal more difficult. That brings me to Lords amendment No. 7. I am delighted that the amendment, if agreed to, will extend the provisions of the Bill as it stands to include the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles or the Central Committee of Fell Packs. I am not so concerned about harriers and beagles, although harrier packs in the Lake district—certainly the Lunesdale harriers—do an extremely helpful job in controlling foxes.

There is no following of footpacks by people on horses because the terrain in the area which I represent is much too difficult. There are footpacks throughout the Lake district and it is essential that the position of the Central Committee of Fell Packs is fully recognised in the Bill. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Newport, East has agreed to include the provisions of amendment No. 7 in the Bill.

I told the hon. Member for Newport, East a few moments ago that I would give him an example of the problem that is caused by foxes that comes from Wales. I remember being told about 30 years ago of a situation that arose during the second world war when the huntsman of a footpack in west Wales was called up for military service. The pack of hounds had to be dispersed. The rise in the fox population on the mountains in west Wales became so great, and their ravages of lambs so great, that they had a significant impact on the production of food. That was especially important during the war, when a large part of the nation's food was being delivered by convoys, which were being attacked all the time by U-boats.

I understand that it became almost impossible to pursue sheep farming on the mountains of west Wales. It became necessary to release the huntsman from the armed services so that he could resume his role and control the fox population and so allow the farming systems in the area to make their proper contribution to the production of food. That work was regarded as much more important than the work that he would have undertaken if he had remained in the Army. That is a clear example from west Wales of the essential need to control foxes. That can be done only by hunting, and the only way in which they can be hunted is by footpacks. As I said, there is no question of people following on horses.

The control of foxes is essential if we are to maintain the beauty of the uplands. If sheep farming were to be made impossible in upland areas, the first people to complain would be those who go to enjoy the beauty of areas such as the Lake district and the Welsh mountains.

I am extremely pleased that a good deal of care has gone into amending the Bill. I hope that it will not make it more difficult in any way for upland farmers to earn a living at a time of great economic difficulty. Despite massive subsidies, they are finding life extremely difficult. I thank the hon. Member for Newport, East for being big enough to include the amendments in the Bill, which I think is an infinitely better measure as a consequence.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I am delighted to be able to take up the remarks of the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), although we have rather different views of foxes. I take the view that the fox is one of nature's entrepreneurs. It amazes me that Conservative Members, who have such fondness for the entrepreneur, should detest an entrepreneur in its natural form.

I shall not deny that the fox occasionally takes a sickly lamb, but the fox's role is more that of the scavenger of the dead lamb and the afterbirth than the taker of healthy lambs. The right hon. Gentleman may recall that, when the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) was representing the Liberal Democrats at an earlier stage in the Bill's progress, he was as enthusiastic as Conservative Members about the need to control foxes. He listed and categorised the massive destruction of lambs and sheep in his constituency. I observed that the hon. and learned Gentleman had probably eaten more sheep than the foxes in his constituency.

In the debate in which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery spoke, I made the suggestion—one or two Conservative Members seemed to approve of the idea— that it would be desirable to have a scientific appraisal of the effect of foxes upon the sheep and lamb population on these islands. There are sufficient experts in the public employ, whether in the Home Office or in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to carry out such a survey. I know that they would readily do so.

I should be interested to receive the results of such a survey, whichever way they went, for they would add to the body of desirable knowledge. A survey should assess whether the fox is as damaging to sheep farming and the interests of the sheep farmer as many suggest. I suspect that a useful excuse is being employed to justify hunting. I do not want to enter into the argument about fox hunting—

Mr. Jopling

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I do not agree with a word of it. I know that he spends quite a lot of time in the Lake district, and I suggest that he should contact some of the hunts. If he takes up that suggestion, he will find that it is quite a regular happening for farmers from one part of the Lake district to telephone a hunt secretary or huntsman and say, "We are losing an awful lot of lambs. Please bring the hunt over and see if you can reduce the number of foxes."

Mr. Hardy

I am aware of that. I am aware also that studies in some areas do not necessarily confirm the right hon. Gentleman's view. That is why I said in the earlier debate to which I referred that it would be desirable if a proper study were undertaken. I hope that the Minister will take note of my suggestion. I am not suggesting that what the right hon. Gentleman has described does not happen, but I think that the scale of the problem is debatable. Surely it is a jolly good idea to put the facts on the record.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsay (Mr. Hughes) suggested that a Minister should be made responsible for these matters. With privatisation and the transferring of responsibility to agencies, there is a good case for removing a large number of Ministers. Perhaps the Home Office Minister would care to act upon that suggestion, as any Minister undertaking that responsibility should not be included in that large number of Ministers who should be removed.

11.30 am
Mr. Simon Hughes

There is an argument, which has currency not just among my colleagues, that there should be an animal protection agency or something similar, charged with the statutory responsibility of looking after animals welfare. Perhaps that would save some Ministers some of their work, and some of the Government some of their embarrassment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) realises that it would not be appropriate to develop that argument while discussing this group of amendments.

Mr. Hardy

I would not wish to waste time on that argument, because I am not overly keen on agencies. I want Ministers to have responsibility. I hope that the Minister accepts that, within that responsibility, enlightenment and a proper factual assessment—which has been the subject of much debate—are desirable.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) is grateful for the tribute paid to him by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). However, my hon. Friend did not exactly enthuse about the amendments; he accepted them out of political realism, because he knew that otherwise the Bill would not succeed. I agree with my hon. Friend's approach, but it is important that we make it clear that the amendments have not been greeted with great enthusiasm.

Lords amendment No. 7 refers to the keeping of a register. Over the past few years, the Government have spent a great deal of money ensuring that those in employment were not allowed to claim social security benefits. In South Yorkshire not long ago, a small army of snoopers spend a great deal of time observing beaters on a shoot. They were all unemployed people who were being gainfully employed on that day's shoot. I suspect that the masters of foxhounds may not be aware how, in certain rural areas, people seek to supplement their relatively low incomes.

Given the reduction in employment in rural areas, one or two of the folk employed as earth stoppers may be dependent upon social security income. I should hate to think that the hunts would be embarrassed when they discovered that they were accessories to an event that Conservative Members regard as far more serious than extensive tax evasion. Given the real enthusiasm of the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for the amendments, I thought it worth making that point. We shall see how matters unfold.

As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East had no alternative but to accept the amendments. I hope—I am sure that Conservative Members also hope —that they will not so weaken the Bill that, in another two or three years, we will have to find yet another opportunity to add to the catalogue of efforts to ensure the protection of badgers.

It is a great pity that the 1973 Act, which I took through the House, was imperfect. I ensured as much protection for the badger as I could at that time, but the Act had a loophole that has been exploited by irresponsible, barbarous and evil people. I hope that this Bill will close the loophole and ensure that the protection of badgers is as comprehensive as all hon. Members want it to be.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said, and we all hope that the Bill will be effective. However, I caution him that we must, as in all matters, realise the limitations of what we can do in this House. We can legislate against murder, and most people will not commit that crime—but there will always be one or two people who will. I hope that we will not panic when one or two people slip through the net provided by this Bill. There must be a balance between what we can effectively achieve and what must be left to the discretion of the public.

Mr. Hardy

I accept the hon. Gentleman's realistic view. Indeed, about 12 years ago I reminded the House that we could not station a police officer by every badger sett, by every endangered plant or by every bird's nest. That is why I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East paid tribute to the voluntary societies, which can help in the processes of education. That is just as important as legislation.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

I came into the Chamber when I realised that the hon. Gentleman—who in other circumstances I call my friend —was speaking. All too often, the media pay attention to something that has gone wrong. The Bill is not as perfect as many of us would have wished, so I hope that the media will focus even on the one or two people who make mistakes that involve the death of these wonderful animals. I hope that the media will not be afraid of exposing them.

Mr. Hardy

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has made an appropriate request. I am grateful for his remarks, just as I have long been grateful for his interest in the matter. I am sure that the Bill will make a significant contribution to the protection of badgers.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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