HC Deb 10 May 1991 vol 190 cc938-45
Sir Charles Morrison

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 2, line 3, leave out 'section 2(3)(c)' and insert 'section 2(3)(a), (c) or (e)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 7, in page 2, line 5, leave out 'that he shall not dig into the tops or sides of the entrances,'. No. 21, in page 2, line 5, leave out 'shall' and insert 'does'.

No. 22, in page 2, line 6, leave out 'shall not be' and insert 'are not'.

No. 23, in page 2, line 8, leave out 'shall be' and insert 'are'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 9, leave out 'clean'.

No. 9, in page 2, leave out lines 10 and 11 and insert 'or soil, or'.

No. 10, in page 2, line 13, leave out 'clean'.

No. 11, in page 2, line 14, leave out 'loose'.

No. 12, in page 2, leave out line 15 and insert 'and removed within twenty four hours'. No. 13, in page 2, line 16, leave out 'consent of the landowner' and insert 'authority of the occupier of the land on which the sett is situated.'. No. 14, in page 2, leave out lines 17 and 18.

No. 15, in page 2, line 18, at end insert— '(6) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under section 2(3)(a) or (c) or (e) by reason of his hounds marking at a sett, provided they are withdrawn as soon as reasonably practicable.'.

Sir Charles Morrison

The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) introduced clause 3 into the Bill in Committee. Like other members of the Committee, I thanked him for doing that, because it meets a number of points on earth stopping that have been made by fox hunters and farmers who are concerned with fox control. None the less, I warned him that some amendments would be necessary. These amendments are those which, after consideration, I feel that it is important to make to clause 3. Some of the amendments do no more than correct defective drafting, but some are more substantial. I should emphasise how important earth stopping is for fox hunting and fox control. Without earth stopping, it is almost impossible to undertake fox hunting and to control foxes.

The clause states that a person shall not be guilty of an offence under clause 2(3)(c)—the offence of obstructing access to or any entrance of a badger sett —under certain conditions. However, in stopping a sett, a person could be held to have committed two other offences—disturbing the badgers, an offence set out in clause 1(3)(e) and damaging the sett, the offence set out in clause 1(3)(a). Amendment No. 6 simply allows disturbance to the badger or damage to a sett for the purpose of earth stopping and it removes the two anomalies that I have briefly described. The amendment would not allow wholesale or excessive damage to a sett or serious disturbance to a badger, because clause 3 carefully describes how a sett can be blocked. Conditions such as the use of straw or hay or the removal of bundles within a certain time mean that harmful interference with the sett will be avoided.

Amendment No. 7 is concerned with digging for foxes inside a sett entrance. The act does not harm badgers, but it is not practicable for legislation to insist that every badger sett that is stopped must be stopped with imported material. Earth stoppers are frequently faced with large setts, which may be partly or temporarily disused, and many have 10 or even 20 or more entrances. In those circumstances, the sensible way to stop the earth is to cut into the sides of the entrance to produce a light covering. That would not harm the badger. If cutting into the sides of the entrances were not permitted—the effect of clause 3—stopping would be difficult. Therefore, I hope that amendment No. 7 will be accepted.

The Bill refers to clean straw, but in practice, defining clean straw would be extremely difficult. The hon. Member for Newport, East may be able to define what constitutes clean straw or say when it become dirty so that use of it is a breach of the law, but I feel that it is difficult to distinguish between clean and dirty straw. Those of us who have farmed know full well that, immediately after harvest, quite a lot of the straw is dirty for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it would be reasonable to accept amendments Nos. 8 and 10, which remove the requirement that the straw be clean.

12.15 pm

Amendments Nos. 9 and 11 deal with the requirement in clause 3 that the soil used in earth stopping is loose—a requirement which is neither sensible nor practical. It would be hard for the courts to determine whether the soil is loose. It may not be possible for an earth stopper to produce loose soil at a sett, particularly on a wet day when the soil tends to compact. Furthermore, if loose soil is dropped into the entrance of a sett, it will fall further down the hole than is desirable. The Masters of Fox Hounds Association recommends soft earth stopping, which is slightly different to loose soil but just as easy for the badger to remove. Therefore, the amendments remove the requirement that the soil should be loose. The provision for loose soil would seem to be unnecessary because clause 3 already contains the important condition that the soil must not be packed hard into the entrances of setts.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 12 deal with the time when stopping may take place. The provisions in clause 3 as to when setts are stopped and blocks are removed are somewhat confused. The first part of the defence permits stopping with soil and other material if it is placed in the entrances on the day of the hunt. This is unnecessary and impractical. Stopping with soil may be done before hunting, for instance to close up a large number of apparently disused holes. The stopping must be undertaken in accordance with the strict conditions set out and only for the purpose of hunting foxes with hounds, so it makes no difference whether the stopping takes place on the day of the hunt or earlier, because, if a badger is present, he will dig himself out. Therefore, amendment No. 9 removes the provision that this form of stopping may take place only on the day of the hunt". The second part of the defence permits stopping with various blocks, which must be subsequently removed. The provision specifies removal "on the same day". In general, stopping takes place on the same day as hunting, but there would be complications if stopping took place the day before the hunt, before midnight. The hon. Member for Newport, East will remember that I drew attention to that in Committee. This might occur when an earth stopper has a large number of holes to stop in a single night—a pretty regular event. In this case, the stop would have to be removed as soon as it was put in, because after midnight it would no longer be "the same day". Amendment No. 12 rewords the provision to make it clear that these stops should be removed within 24 hours. The amendment would make no difference to the badger, but it would make clause 3 infinitely more practical and realistic.

Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 deal with the authority of hunt recognised by the Masters of Fox Hounds Association and a register. This point was discussed briefly in Committee. The defence provided by clause 3 insists that earth stoppers must have the consent of land owners and the authority of a hunt recognised by the MFHA, which must keep a register of all earth stoppers.

The requirement that earth stoppers should have the consent of landowners is, in principle, a good one. I have no doubt, however, that a better wording is "authority of the occupier", as that recognises the rights of tenant farmers and other land occupiers and removes the need for any formal consent to be signified. We must be realistic. It is not unknown for land to be owned by institutions or by landowners who are not immediately available. It seems, therefore, that the occupier of the land is a more relevant person than the landowner.

The requirement that the Masters of Fox Hounds Association must recognise hunts and keep a registration of earth stoppers is unacceptable. That is because there are many hunts—these have been referred to by implication already—including fell packs in the Lake District and packs in Wales, which are all vital for fox control but which can hardly go under the term "packs of hounds" because there are perhaps only two, three or four hounds. These "packs" are not recognised by the association but they must be able to stop badger setts. Their purpose is to control foxes. It is asking too much of the association, however, to undertake a major survey to cover many organisations for which it does not bear responsibility and over which it has no control. It is to ask too much of the association also that it should accept responsibility where it has no jurisdiction.

A registration of earth stoppers would be impracticable. First, there is the difficulty that is presented by the small groups of hounds that might go under the heading of fox hunts. I do not know how it would be possible to keep lists of earth stoppers within their ranks through the Masters of Fox Hounds Association or any other organisation. I suspect that the farmers concerned sometimes ask their friends to go out and help them.

Mr. Ron Davies

I make a suggestion that the hon. Gentleman might find helpful. In Scotland, the Fox Destruction Society is registered with the Scottish Office. In Wales, many of the gun packs to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are established as fox destruction societies. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there would be some merit in having a registration system with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for England, or with the agriculture department in the Scottish Office for Scotland or with the Welsh Office for Wales? Perhaps it would be possible to introduce the control structure that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting through that registration procedure.

Sir Charles Morrison

That is an idea which could be pursued. I am not sure whether its implementation would be practical. The hon. Gentleman, knows much more about Wales than I do, but I have a feeling that the procedure would be intensely bureaucratic. I suspect that inadvertently people would find themselves quite often in breach of the law, but it is an idea which would be worth considering in more detail.

Mr. Bowis

I understand that the framing of the provisions to which my hon. Friend is referring was based on current practice and not on conjecture. In Committee, our attention was drawn to the byelaw of the New Forest. It has been shown to work effectively and perhaps we can take that to be the position unless my hon. Friend can present evidence to the contrary. The byelaw states: All stopping will be undertaken on the morning of the hunting day only. The Joint Masters shall nominate and appoint authorised stoppers, each of whom shall be fully instructed on stopping requirements, and a list of appointees shall be made available to the Forestry Commission prior to the first Meet of the season. That byelaw has been shown to work in practice. Perhaps it would not do so throughout the country, but it is a useful example.

Sir Charles Morrison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was aware of the byelaw. It may be difficult—I would not put it more strongly—to extrapolate from the limited area of the New Forest to embrace the nation as a whole. The matter can be considered further and dealt with, perhaps, in another place at a later stage of the Bill's consideration.

It is important to stress that it is entirely impracticable for the Masters of Fox Hounds Association to keep a register. For example, the association has no control of gun packs. It is probably true to say that there are fairly regular bands of earth stoppers that act on behalf of the many hunts throughout the length and breadth of England, Wales and part of Scotland. On the other hand, I have no doubt that many of the earth stoppers from time to time ask their friends or mates to help them out if they have a lot of work to do on one particular evening. If the provision is allowed to remain in the Bill, it will inadvertently cause people to find themselves in breach of the law. I should prefer the Bill to be amended in the way that I have suggested.

Amendment No. 15 is concerned with marking. The matter was referred to in Committee. Marking occurs when foxes run to ground either in a fox earth or, more relevant in the context of the debate, in a badger sett. When that happens, the hounds will stand on top of the badger sett, scuffle around and bay. They cannot go down the hole because they are too big. They will stand on top, however, until the huntsmen appear. Sometimes they are unable to arrive at the scene for about two minutes after the hounds have arrived, due to difficulties getting across country, for example. The hounds will not do any harm to the sett, but, as I have said, they will stand on top of it until the huntsmen arrive and call them off.

In some circumstances marking will be an offence, whereas in others it will not. If the damage or disturbance to a sett is neither intentional nor reckless, no offence under the Bill will have been committed. Where the master or the huntsmen could not foresee the risk of marking taking place, they would be safe from prosecution. They may also be covered by the terms of the revised offence that is set out in clause 2, which permits interference with a sett if the action was the accidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided. The burden of proof would be on the master or the huntsman, who would have to show that he could not have reasonably avoided his hounds marking out the sett.

The problem will arise when hunts draw coverts or other places in search of a fox, when they know that badger setts are in the vicinity and they know that it is possible, if not probable, that the fox will run to one of the setts and that the hounds will mark the fox to ground. In those circumstances, an offence would be committed.

I emphasise that in the west country, Wales and other areas where both badgers and foxes are highly numerous, that could happen on every hunting day. If masters were to suspend hunting in every place where there was a risk of marking a fox in a badger sett, fox hunting would come to an end. Of course, under clause 3 hunts may stop up the badger setts to prevent foxes from running to ground in them. Hunts do that to the best of their ability, but badgers dig large numbers of holes and, where they are prolific, earth stoppers simply cannot keep up with them. It is inevitable that the foxes will find some hole to run to, and often they will be unstopped setts. Amendment No. 15 would permit interference with a sett by reason of marking with hounds. Masters and huntsmen would be required to take their hounds away from the sett as soon as reasonably practicable.

I hope that the hon. Member for Newport, East will favourably consider the amendments. None would undermine the fundamental purpose of the Bill, but they would make clause 3 more practical, because it would then take account of reality.

12.30 pm
Mr. Colvin

I shall be brief in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison). I am pleased that an earth-stopping code has been written into the Bill, even though it is not the code that I want. For what it is worth, the code that has not been written into the Bill—that is, the code used by the Masters of Fox Hounds Association—needed tightening in certain areas. I accept that it is no use those who support fox hunting criticising the Bill if they are not prepared to put their own house in order. That is what the amendments, so expertly introduced by my hon. Friend, would achieve.

On Second Reading, I read out some of the contents of the MFHA code, and the House took the view that it was inadequate because it did not specify in enough detail precisely what people should be allowed or not allowed to do within the provisions of the Badgers Act 1973 or the Bill. In principle, I like the idea of an earth-stopping code being written into the Bill, but in practice I feel that the details have many deficiencies. If the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) is not prepared to accept the amendments, he should have an urgent meeting with the MFHA before the Bill goes to another place. Quite frankly, the only way to reach agreement is to sit around a table talking to the MFHA; it is the only way to find a solution that is workable, practicable and fair under the law.

The suggestion of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) about an additional register to take in fell packs, gun packs and so on made sense. The Bill's proposal would put too much onus on the MFHA to keep a register. Quite frankly, the idea of a register of earth stoppers is ridiculous. I have been an earth stopper, and most of the workers on my farm are earth stoppers. It would be impossible to keep a register of every earth stopper in the country.

On a day when the hunt is due to come to my farm, the master telephones and asks me to stop the earths. What do I do? Everybody is busy and the farm is under tremendous economic pressure. I grab the first person I see and tell him where to go. That is why it would be good to have a code, and I hope that the MFHA publishes one on a piece of plastic paper that can be distributed to landowners. I could then hand that to the man that I have asked to do the earth stopping and say, "Go and do it George—but you must do it this way or you will be breaking the law." If the Bill can achieve that, it will have done a good job. The hon. Member for Newport, East must accept the impracticability of what he has suggested. If he is prepared to accept the amendments, there will be no problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) mentioned the New Forest and Forestry Commission land. That especially interested me, because the New Forest extends just to my constituency, so I know something about it. In the New Forest and on Forestry Commission land, the conditions for earth stopping are as onerous as those proposed in clause 3. The Forestry Commission's authority to hunt specifies, for example, minimal use of loose soil and that the sides of holes must not be cut or interfered with. However, that is no reason for extending the conditions across the country.

The experience of hunts attempting to meet those conditions has led to concern about the wider implications. Earth stoppers have reported considerable practical difficulties in stopping according to the strict requirements. The most recent occasion on which I stopped a badger's sett on my farm is an example. The sett was situated in chalk, so no soil was available. We need a definition of soil. Is chalk soil? I am not sure. Nothing was available except flintstones. Would they be acceptable under the earth-stopping code? I doubt it. We had a considerable job. We had to journey some distance to get the soil to carry out the earth-stopping job.

The hon. Member for Newport, East must be practical about the implications of his proposals. Perhaps he will accept the amendments. In areas in which setts are far more prolific than in the New Forest, and in which there are many holes, the same stringent regulations would result in many setts being left unstopped. The effect would be a reduction in the ability of hunts to control foxes, with a consequent increase in alternative methods such as snaring, which would be extremely unfortunate for the badger. Badgers can become caught in snares as easily as foxes can. If the fox-hunting control of foxes diminishes, farmers will resort to shooting. That is a most unsuitable way in which to try to control foxes, because it is difficult to shoot a fox with a shotgun.

The Forestry Commission and the New Forest may be able to ensure that alternative methods are not taken up, but that would not be the case elsewhere. It is highly important for the badger that hunting can continue without restrictions. Only hunting ensures that it is only foxes—and not badgers—that are taken. I support the amendment.

Mr. Roy Hughes

We have discussed the amendments at length. The issue of stopping arose in a big way in Committee. Hon. Members will be aware that I made a major concession in Committee and incorporated the code of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association in the Bill. The masters of foxhounds are the experts in the matter, and I was prepared to be guided by them. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) now speaks in reasonable terms and that the hon. member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) has adopted a persuasive approach.

Mr. Colvin

The hon. Gentleman said that the stopping code of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association had been incorporated in the Bill. Has the hon. Gentleman sat down with the MFHA and talked through the code with it? Is the MFHA in 100 per cent. agreement with what has been incorporated in the Bill? If the hon. Gentleman does not mean that, I hope that he will explain.

Mr. Hughes

I did not intend to be categorical about the matter. The provisions are based on the provisions of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association.

Mr. Colvin

The principle?

Mr. Hughes

Yes, the principle. The provisions were accepted by the Committee.

Amendments Nos. 21 to 23 are essentially technical amendments. We will oppose the other amendments in the group, except amendment No. 15, which we will concede.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Does the hon. Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) wish to move amendment No. 7 formally? I imagine that the answer is no.

Mr. Colvin

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Your hearing is probably better than mine, but am I right in thinking that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) said that he would accept amendment No. 15? That was certainly my impression.

Mr. Roy Hughes

indicated assent.

Mr. Colvin

I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We accept amendment No. 15.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman accepts amendment No. 15, but that comes later. The hon. Gentleman is the sponsor of the Bill and has said that amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 23 are technical amendments. If the House agrees, I shall put them together.

Amendments made: No. 21, in page 2, line 5, leave out 'shall' and insert 'does'.

No. 22, in page 2, line 6, leave out 'shall not be' and insert 'are not'.

No. 23, in page 2, line 8, leave out 'shall be' and insert 'are'.—[Mr. Roy Hughes.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) accepts amendment No. 15.

Mr. Roy Hughes

indicated assent.

Amendment made: No. 15, in page 2, line 18, at end insert— '(6) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under section 2(3)(a) or (c) or (e) by reason of his hounds marking at a sett, provided they are withdrawn as soon as reasonably practicable.'.—(Sir Charles Morrison.)

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