HL Deb 19 June 1978 vol 393 cc905-43

7.21 p.m.

Lord HOUGHTON of SOWERBY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what conclusions they have now reached on the Report of the Select Committee on the Hare Coursing Bill [H.L.] of 6th May 1976. The noble Lord said: My Lords, observers of the proceedings at our Parliament in Westminster are frequently fascinated by the smoothness with which one debate can succeed another without any apparent interruption in the proceedings. Here we have two widely contrasting subjects in the course of the day's debate. I confess that had I foreseen the nature of the earlier debate today, I would have deferred my Question (which I am about to ask) in order to take part in the discussion which has just concluded. I should be somewhat out of order if I were to tell your Lordships what I would have said had I taken part in that debate. I can assure your Lordships it would have been provocative, as my speech is going to be now. However, I now beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, which is: To ask Her Majesty's Government what conclusions they have now reached on the Report of the Select Committee on the Hare Coursing Bill [H L] of 6th May 1976". I suppose that I should declare an interest. I am the chairman of the League against Cruel Sports, which rather labels me. This Question relates to cruelty to animals. With your Lordships' permission, I want to avail myself of the opportunity on this occasion to refute the suggestion which came my way in the course of the debate on the Protection of Children Bill Second Reading stage last month: namely, that I probably care for animals more than I care for children. I am by no means alone in this experience because one frequently hears this kind of remark. I am not going to quote what was said or who said it; it is on the record. All I want to do for a moment or two is to reply to it on my own behalf and on behalf of many others who suffer, if I may say so, from this kind of insinuation.

I do not equate animals with children, nor do I make them alternatives in my affections, my concern, or my work. They are a different species each with their rights and claims upon the living world. It is not a matter of priorities, of "either/or", it is a matter of the moral standards of human beings, and those to me are all-embracing and all-pervasive. They are all that justifies the continued existence of mankind. I am not called upon to apportion my deepest feelings between children and animals. I care about all living things—and for the weak and helpless most of all.

Moreover, I have no obsessions; I am not a fanatic; I am not crazy. I reject the proposition that fondness for animals implies some lack of concern for human beings. Do I have to prove a love of children by being cruel to animals or by being indifferent to cruelty to animals? Is the person who is cruel to animals likely to love children all the more? Is that the proposition, or is cruelty an evil streak in the nature of some humans which makes selfless love, whether for humans or animals, impossible?

When Queen Victoria was urging Members of this House to support the Bill which became the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 did any noble Lord suggest that Her Majesty (who had nine children) cared more for animals than for children? If not, how many children does one have to have to be exempt from this imputation? How can one disprove it? The more one analyses this taunt, the more unfair it becomes. With great respect, I ask that we should hear no more of it.

May I then come to the Question about the Hare Coursing Bill. I want to make it clear that I am asking a question about hare coursing with hounds, and not about blood sports, cruel sports, field sports—whatever we like to call them—generally. Those matters are for another day. The Hare Coursing Bill came to this House from another place as a Government measure in November 1975. It was carried in another place by 217 votes to 176 votes. It was introduced by the Home Secretary of the present Government. When it came to this House, owing to the Prorogation, it had a Second Reading twice: once on 17th November 1975 and again on 16th December 1975. I mention this because a Government Bill has a different and stronger place in the Parliamentary programme than a Private Member's Bill. It is not often that a Government Bill becomes a casualty; and, by contrast, the death rate among Private Member's Bills is very high.

I saw the other day that a spokesman from, I believe, the Field Sports Society, deplored the introduction of cruel sports into Party politics; but Government Bills usually do come into Party politics. No contentious Bill on any subject has much chance of getting through Parliament unless it is a Government Bill or is given special facilities. We all know that. My complaint for years has been about the futility of so much effort and time spent on Private Member's Bills which can be wrecked by the persistent obstruction of a determined few. I have had experience of that as have other Members of your Lordships' House who were in another place. There can be no gainsaying that reforms in the law relating to animal protection when relegated to the luck of the draw of Private Member's Bills may languish for years before they are taken up by Government or can get on the Statute Book without Government aid. If Governments take them up directly as Government measures, they become the subject, if Members of Parliament so wish, of Party politics.

I would add that all political Parties have an equal opportunity of considering their policies on animal protection. All are free to put them to the people and all are free to act upon them. There is no selection here. This is a field of considerable public concern and deep human feelings. I will assert that if political parties neglect it, they will be neglecting a large part of the thinking and concern of a great many people. That is why a co-ordinating committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, has recently put to all the political Parties represented in this Parliament an outline of six areas of concern regarding the treatment and care of animals which we have invited them to study, and, if they see fit, make public pronouncements. If the Labour Party decides to come boldly to the fore in this field, all that is needed is for other political Parties to follow suit and then perhaps we will have all-Party politics on animals and shall get something done.

Meantime, I am asking Her Majesty's Government what conclusions they have reached on this matter of live hare coursing. I raise it now, because it was a Government Bill, there was a Select Committee and there were differing points of view upon the matter which they had to consider. That was in May 1976 and, so far as Parliament is concerned, there the matter still rests. The Government have, however, said more than once in this House and in the other place that they are still committed to making live hare coursing unlawful, and that they will reintroduce a Bill at a suitable, opportunity. I want to ask my noble friend to give your Lordships' House now an up-to-date view on this prospect. That is really the simple question that I am asking.

The Select Committee comprised, I think, six Members of this House. Three of them, including the Chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, are down on the list to speak subsequently in this debate, and I welcome that. The noble Lord, Lord Denham, gave evidence to the Select Committee and I see that he is to follow me in this debate. I am grateful, after the long and fascinating debate of today, that so many noble Lords are remaining for this end of business for today.

I do not remember that we ever registered our thanks to the Select Committee for the work they did. I may have missed something, but I do not remember it. May I hasten therefore for my own part, to express grateful thanks to the Select Committee for doing such a wonderful job on what, to a number of them, must have been a distasteful subject, and for putting themselves through what were probably distasteful experiences, in order to see the truth, get at the facts and bring their judgment to bear upon the matter as they saw it.

My Question asks Her Majesty's Government what conclusions they have reached on the report of the Select Committee. Their recommendations are to be found in paragraph 29 on page 14 of their report, and their final words were: For all these reasons the Committee recommend that the Bill should not proceed, but that action should be taken by those concerned to examine further current coursing practice and legislation for the protection of wild animals on the lines which they have suggested". That recommendation was not unanimously arrived at. The concluding paragraph of the report was, according to the Minutes of Evidence and Proceedings of the Select Committee, carried by four votes to three. That is to be found on page 229.

I believe that, following that recommendation, a committee—however informal, nevertheless, to some extent, representative—was set up to carry out the suggestion of the Select Committee and study further coursing practices, as they indicated. Possibly, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, will be able to tell us more about that, because I believe that he is knowledgeable on the progress of that committee—I hope so. Nevertheless, I am bound to be quite frank and say that I shall be surprised indeed if any committee to study coursing practice will produce something which can be turned into a demonstration of man's humanity to animals. It seems to me that something will be lost in the process of trying to put a humane face upon live hare coursing. Either it will cease to be hare coursing, or it will not be humane. There is probably an irreconcilable dilemma there. Be that as it may, I think it would be useful if the House could be informed on how matters stand.

I have assumed, from replies given by Ministers up till quite recently, that the Government's view, notwithstanding the report of the Select Committee, is still that live hare coursing is unacceptable and should be banned entirely. I am asking my noble friend to say "Yes" to that question, and to indicate the Government's intentions for bringing this about. That is all I wish to say. The simple question is: What conclusions have Her Majesty's Government reached on the report of the Select Committee and, whatever conclusions they have reached, what do they propose to do about them?

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the first part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, I feel that I should declare an interest. I have four children. But unlike the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will accept the conclusions of the Select Committee of your Lordships' House—conclusions that were only arrived at after very careful consideration of all the evidence that was available. This Bill was not only, it was not even primarily, an attack on hare coursing. Recent disclosures in the Press have shown that it was merely the forerunner of a number of similar measures, designed to eliminate all field sports—hunting, shooting and fishing.

It is no good the Home Affairs Committee of the Labour Party trying to delude themselves that fishing is, somehow, different. There is no way in which you can differentiate, logically, ethically or morally, between fishing and the rest. And, if and when they have contrived to ban all other field sports, one of two things must happen. Either they will then go up to the anglers, whip off their false beards and say "April Fool! You're next". Or, they will sit back and rest on their achievements and be prepared to allow one set of standards to apply to, in this case, a mere couple of thousand people, and quite another set when it comes to the activities of over three and a half million. And I really do not know which of the two I would find more reprehensible.

I regret this attack on field sports, for two reasons. In the first place, it is unwise. A large proportion of the people who live and work in the country take some part in one field sport or another. Now, over the past few years, Her Majesty's Government have decided that they must discriminate against the countryman, who is primarily the producer of food, in favour of the townsman, who is primarily the consumer of food. Whether or not they are right to have done so, is not relevant here. But, having done so, now to introduce, quite gratituously, yet another rift between town and country, seems to me to be madness.

But, secondly, I believe this attack on field sports to be unjust. The case against field sports is not that they are sadistic or that they are the cause of unnecessary suffering, because it is demonstrable, beyond argument, that they are neither of these things. The enjoyment of a field sport has nothing to do with a lust for blood. It lies rather in the exercising of a particular skill, and it is an implicit part of that skill that the animal should be killed as quickly and as humanely as possible. No, the case against hare coursing and other field sports is that there is something objectionable about an activity that involves the death of an animal, when the primary motivation of the participant is recreation, and only the secondary one the obtaining of food or the achieving of control. I believe this charge to be equally unfounded.

I think that I can best illustrate this to your Lordships by telling the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is to reply for the Government, a little story. It is a simple story and it has a moral. The story is mine, but the moral is that of Her Majesty's Government. There were two farmers, called George and Bill, and they were neighbours. One morning, George's wife said to him, "George, I'd like to make a rabbit pie for supper tonight. Will you go out and see if you can shoot me a rabbit?"George said that he would, and in the village street outside his house he met Bill, who asked him where he was going. George told him, and Bill said, "I'd enjoy a morning's shooting, too. Hold on a minute while I get my gun, and I'll come with you." So the two men went out together. George got his rabbit, and Bill got one, too. Bill took his rabbit home to his wife, and she was very pleased. "George's wife is going to make a rabbit pie with theirs", said Bill. "What a good idea", said Bill's wife, "I will, too." And she did. And they had it for supper. And it was delicious.

Now, at first sight, the actions of these two men seem much the same. But I would ask your Lordships to consider the moral difference. We will take George first. We have no complaint to make about him. All he was doing was to exercise the traditional right of the countryman to live off the land; and if in the process he got pleasure out of his walk and out of his shot, good luck to him! But Bill—he is a very different matter, Bill went out solely for his own selfish pleasure. In order to achieve this, he shot and killed a defenceless rabbit. This man had sunk so low in moral depravity that he actually got pleasure out of eating his ill-gotten gains. And if this great and good Government lasts very much longer, such behaviour will soon come under the full rigour of the criminal law.

But the story has a sequel. The very next week, Bill's wife—Bill, your Lordships will remember, was the wicked one—said to him, "You remember that rabbit pie we had? It was jolly good. I'd like to make another one. Will you go out and see if you can get me another rabbit?" And Bill said, "Certainly" "Tell you what", he said, "I'll give George a ring and ask him if he'd like to come, too." And George said that there was nothing he would like better than another walk in the fields with a gun. So they went out together for the second time. Again both men shot a rabbit. Again both wives made a rabbit pie. Again both families emjoyed eating it. But this time it was Bill who was the fine, upstanding countryman and George who was the moral degenerate and potential criminal.

Now, your Lordships may think that I have deliberately set out to exaggerate the difference between the motivations of these two men to the point of absurdity. But it is exactly the same in degree, no more and no less, as the difference Her Majesty's Government sought to make in this Bill between competitive and non-competitive coursing. There are two variations—in detail only. In the first place, it is a hare rather than a rabbit that is at risk. In the second place, the enjoyment lies in testing the skill and speed of one's dog rather than one's own skill and accuracy with a gun. To go out and course a hare for the pot is all right, even though, at the same time, one may assess and compare the relative merits of the two dogs. To go out coursing in order to assess and compare the relative merits of the two dogs is all wrong, even though. at the same time, one may get a hare for the pot.

I challenge the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, to find one slightest point where my analogy is an unfair one. My Lords, we have it on good authority that "The law is a ass—a idiots", but this Bill would have turned it into a gibbering lunatic. And, at a time when the rule of law in this country is under pressure as never before, it is my belief that to proceed with it would be irresponsible.

7.44 p.m.


My Lords, I suppose, like the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that I should declare a vested interest. I have four children; I am also President of the Coursing Club, so I am one better! Every day we in our very own country lose a piece of freedom. Sometimes it is larger; sometimes it is smaller. However, this freedom that we have is one of the things which should be most dear to all our hearts. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, can tonight raise an Unstarred Question on a subject like this. He has freedom of speech to do so. The noble Lord is fully entitled to his views. There are many of his views with which I am in complete agreement, although I am not in agreement with this particular one tonight. But the noble Lord is entitled to express his conscience, and surely, my Lords, that is what democracy is all about.

However, there is something more sinister lurking in the background and disguising its purpose hehind the noble Lord's conscience. I am fully prepared to accept that this Unstarred Question was put down for Answer tonight and that it is a purecoincidencethat the question of other field sports should have been raised a few days ago. I do not in any way accuse the noble Lord of connivance. Nevertheless, I have said in your Lordships' House, and I shall say it again, that there are certain sections—small they may be, but they are powerful—in the Labour Party who wish to abolish field sports. They seem to be determined to try to bring the whole subject into a political arena. Whatever their object may be—whether they think it may get them more votes, or whether it is a hangover of envy from what is archaically called "class warfare"—is, to me, irrelevant. But the propaganda which is churned out is that all field sports, and in particular coursing, are the prerogative of the wealthy, landed gentry—which, as we all know, is a load of rubbish. They regard coursing as a stepping stone on their way towards trying to abolish other field sports.

It is perhaps sad that the majority of the anti-blood sports, as they call themselves, know little or nothing about life in the countryside, whether it be the conservation of wild life or the conservation of integral parts of our rural scene, such as trees and hedgerows. They do not seem to realise that the whole system of field sports is one of the main reasons why the English countryside is what it is. A point to note here is that coursing in fact preserves or conserves hares. I quote from Hansard of 7th December 1974, col. 1254, in another place where the Leader of the House said: I am afraid that one step at a time is enough for me. If we can get the legislation on hare coursing through this House during this session, it will be a major step forward and we will then look toward dealing with other sports". Mr Eric Heffer, the honourable Member for Walton, said in Hansard on 13th June 1975, col 837: It is an uncivilised practice carried out by a minority and should be dispensed with at the earliest possible moment". There we have it, my Lords—one small section telling us what we should or should not do. The Labour Party, which claims to be a true defender of democracy, a true representative of all the people of this country, looks as if it may well ride roughshod over what Mr. Heifer describes as "a minority".

Only last Saturday, two days ago, the Prime Minister was in South Wales. He said that the Labour Party was the Party for people to put their faith in, as it represented all groups of people in the United Kingdom. Why, then, does it do such a sharp "about face" and try to destroy the way of life of a minority? Even though this may be a minority, it may well end up by proving to be a much stronger minority than had originally been thought. And surely all minorities in our freedom-loving country have a right to exist and live their own lives?

I am not going to go into the details of the very excellent report by the Select Committee. Three of its members are going to speak after me. My only regret is that my friend the late Lord Henley is not here as well. But the Select Committee's Report is there for all to read and, one hopes, inwardly digest. I would say that it was entirely comprehensive and, as a result, its findings were scrupulously fair.

As I have said before, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is fully entitled to his own opinion and conscience. It would be indeed a very much worse and sadder world if everybody always agreed about everything. But the crux of the matter is that this certain section of the community, whatever their reasons, think that by abolishing coursing and other field sports they will possibly harvest large crop of votes.

It is of interest to note, as had already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, that shooting and fishing have been left out. But this, I think, really goes to show and prove what a political charade the whole matter is, and that it is not a matter of conscience, for if their argument were taken to its logical extreme we should all become vegetarians. It would appear that because the majority of electors are oppidans, the feelings, the sentiments and outlook of the: rural community do not count. No, my Lords, let well alone. The findings of the Select Committee speak for themselves. Field sports, whether one likes them or not, are for the conscience of the individual and are not a political matter. Before I sit down, I leave your Lordships with one thought to ponder over. Will your Lordships please consider all the millions of birds, animals and fish that are confined to small prisons for their entire natural lifespan, and that masquerade under the hypocritical name of pets to their human owners?

7.53 p.m.


My Lords, I must first thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for his kind remarks made on the work of the Select Committee. He said that the final recommendation was made by a vote of four to three. That is perfectly correct. I should, however, in order to complete the record, like just to mention that on 2nd April it was moved in the Committee, that the Lord in the Chair do prepare a draft report recommending that the Bill should not proceed, but suggesting further improvements in the conduct of hare coursing matches". That was carried by five votes to two, so there seems to have been a certain amount of wavering in the minority.

Since there has been no debate on this Bill, I should like to say a little about how the problem looked to me as Chairman of the Select Committee—a job which I accepted with some reluctance under the pressing invitation of the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies. All the members of the Select Committee showed the seriousness and objectivity required to consider the complex problems involved in this deceptively simple Bill. We were all ignorant of hare coursing. I think that we all looked at it with open minds and tried to arrive at the facts and to draw the conclusions to which they led. I, for one, was particularly glad that we had the advantage of the great knowledge and experience of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who has devoted much of his life to the study of wild animals and their welfare. I am very glad that he is going to speak during this debate.

Although we did not all agree on the conclusions set out in the report, we were unanimous on a great part of it. We heard the evidence of the coursers, who were clearly not sadists but believed that they were carrying on a traditional country sport to which no blame could be attached, and of the societies opposed to hare coursing, who were undoubtedy sincere, although by no means all their evidence was well-founded. I should perhaps add that as a result of my two visits to hare coursing matches during this inquiry, I find it a cold and unrewarding sport for the spectator, and do not intend to repeat the experience. I therefore declare my non-interest.

We tried to treat this matter in a positive way. We all wanted to diminish the suffering of wild animals—in this case, the hare. Our task was to assess the suffering caused by hare coursing matches and to determine whether the Bill was the best way of diminishing it, or whether there was another, better method of achieving this. Our first task was to assess the physical suffering involved. We did not fall into the trap of considering the hare's suffering caused by man as justified if it is no greater than the suffering which the hare endures in nature, for hares suffer very unpleasant deaths in nature. However, it soon appeared that the problem was relatively minute, since it was calculated that only between 120 and 150 hares in a year suffer physically from the dogs in hare coursing matches—and that for only the briefest time—while very many thousands suffer much more for much longer periods through being wounded by shotguns.

It can be argued that the suffering of hares in hare shoots is justifiable as being necessary for control, whereas coursing matches are not concerned with control. But to the hare the motive makes no difference. Indeed, the hare which escapes the dogs risks suffering a more unpleasant death in the hare shoots which are required on coursing farms for control purposes after the coursing season is ended. Nor can I accept the argument that more hares are preserved in coursing areas, and that therefore coursing indirectly causes more hare deaths for control purposes. The balancing of conservation and control is a difficult matter to get right, but I certainly could not subscribe to a view which would logically require the extermination of all the hares in this country. I hope that we shall hear more about this from the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who is an expert on the question of control. My con- clusion was that the physical suffering of the hare in coursing matches is minimal, relatively and absolutely, and that the abolition of coursing matches would make only a minute difference to the suffering which the hare is likely to experience.

Secondly, there was the question of mental suffering, which was raised by the societies. Is the hare in terror when being chased? Much work has been done in recent years on the behaviour of wild animals. We had expert evidence to show that being chased is so much a part of the life of prey species that the hare does not feel terror when being chased, but peacefully resumes its previous occupation when it escapes. I see no reason to doubt this evidence, which came from an exceptionally well-qualified witness.

Thirdly, we examined the doubts expressed to your Lordships by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, in a previous debate, who gave evidence to us on whether the Bill was in itself a sound piece of legislation. Here I must emphasise that this is not a hare coursing Bill. It is a Bill to stop hare coursing matches. Under the terms of this curious little Bill anyone can course hares without the benefit to the hare of the rules of the National Coursing Club, provided that he avoids any taint of competition. One club, we were told, conducts competitive and non-competitive coursing more or less alternately throughout the day. So, under this Bill, its members, if they continued their previous activities, would be criminals at 11 o'clock in the morning and innocent citizens at noon, while there would be no observable difference for the hare. Or are we to tell the members that they can continue their coursing exactly as before provided no prize is involved and they do not bet on it? There are many gradations between competitive coursing matches organised by clubs under the rules of the National Coursing Club and non-competitive coursing, as we have tried to point out.

If the Bill were passed there would be great confusion in the courts in interpreting the Act. The difference between the criminal and the innocent—as the noble Lord, Lord Diplock, pointed out—would inevitably come to depend on the availability of the evidence, which would be an affront to the criminal law. It would at least be logical to make all hare coursing unlawful. But that would be to overturn the stated object of the Bill, and the amended Bill would be unenforceable.

Although the majority of the Committee considered that the Bill was not a suitable vehicle for reducing animal suffering, it was clearly our duty to consider whether there were better ways of diminishing the suffering of the hare in coursing matches, however small the numbers involved. Readers of our report will see that the kill is not an important element in hare coursing matches. We believe that it could be virtually eliminated by further strengthening those rules of the National Coursing Club which assist the escape of the hare, by stricter and more comprehensive supervision of hare coursing matches by the Club, and, probably after further experiment, by making muzzling compulsory. We have also recommended that there should be a study of possible new legislation to regulate hare coursing matches, and to strengthen the Protection of Animals Act by its application to wild animals. I regret that the RSPCA are not willing to co-operate in experiments on these lines, but I am glad that the British Field Sports Society have established a committee to work on the lines which we have suggested.

There remain two questions, First, it is said that public opinion is increasingly opposed to hare coursing matches. Not all the evidence supports this view, but in any case, as we have said in our report, if those canvassed by the societies are as ignorant of the facts as the Members of the Committee were before our inquiry, the value of that statement must be considered debatable. Even if there were public opinion behind the Bill, that would not justify it if it were on other grounds undesirable; but in any case I am not convinced that the public opinion mobilised by the societies against hare coursing matches was based on knowledge of the facts.

Secondly, there is the ethical question. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, whose point of view I respect, put the point clearly in the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill, when he said The real argument against hare coursing is not so much the infliction of pain or cruelty on animals; it is the totally undesirable and, I think, impermissible enjoyment of human beings in such a savage exercise". So it has nothing to do with the hare at all. This view must apply to all country sports, whatever the degree of control involved, since there is no doubt that very many people find enjoyment in hunting hares and foxes, in shooting birds or hares, in stalking and, as we have heard this evening, in coarse fishing. I think the numbers are about 4 million in coarse fishing, where the fish is played on a hook and then thrown back into the water to be played again. How does the noble Lord propose to stop people enjoying these sports? And are we really going to stop hare coursing matches on ethical grounds, while continuing to allow non-competitive coursing? I do not believe that the argument adduced by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, is a sound basis for legislation against coursing matches, which involve so little suffering to the hare, suffering which it may be possible to eliminate altogether.

I believe that we should strengthen the Protection of Animals Act to penalise any significant cruelty, but that to create this new crime solely for ethical reasons, concerned with the behaviour of human beings and without practical advantage to animals, is undesirable. For these reasons I can see at the moment no cause to alter the opinion which was expressed in the report.

8.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad indeed that my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby has tabled this Question. I have been wanting to say something about this problem for a long time; but I must tell your Lordships that since the report was published I have received quite a sheaf of letters from people who have told me that I have done wrong in agreeing to the report. One lady says: I was shocked and disappointed to hear the decision of the Select Committee of the House of Lords". Another asked how I should feel if a person put a dog on to a cat, which the lady in question thought was illegal; and she asked what was the difference between that and hare coursing. There are more.

The point about those letters is that many people are under the impression that the report was a unanimous report. Clearly, what has happened is that these ladies—and, I suspect, many more people—have read the report but not in conjunction with the minutes of the evidence, which are in a much larger book. Of course the report was not unanimous. In fact it was a majority report and if one looks at page 229 of the report, which has already been mentioned, one sees that three of us—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone and I—voted against the conclusion of the report for reasons which we took pains to make people try to understand, so that the conclusions were supported by four to three only. I sincerely hope that anyone who wants to talk about hare coursing and this report will read not only the short document, which is the report itself, but the minutes of evidence which go with it.

Furthermore, it is clear—and it has been made clear today from what we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley—that this is a highly emotive question; and when we are dealing with a question which is highly emotive it is natural, is it not, that people will tend to rationalise on the evidence they have heard to support their own case? I want to make it quite clear that I do not dub those who support hare coursing as bloodthirsty sadists. I have met them. I went to see some coursing and I do not want to go again; but I met the people and I know that they are just following a country exercise which they have grown up with and think is perfectly right.

That happens to all of us at times. We tend to accept what has gone before and not to question it, and then we are surprised when these things are questioned. When one remembers that at one time cock fighting and bear baiting were considered to be legitimate sports in this country, one must realise that public opinion changes and therefore legislation is brought to bear on these sports to make them illegal. I do not think that people who enjoy hare coursing are bloody-minded sadists, but I do think that they have a blind spot; and, if I may say so, I do not think that slanging each other from either side will do very much good if one is seeking to come to an objective view of the situation.

Neither do I accept that there is a great class difference. I do not know how one defines "class" these days. After all, we are all in this House. I suppose noble Lords would say that I come from the working class while other noble Lords are hereditary Peers; but we get on very well and we do not criticise each other because of our origins. It is not a class issue: it is an issue between those who believe that hare coursing is, in the first place, cruel and, in the second place, that it denigrates human nature itself. That is not said viciously either, but it is a difference of moral outlook and not of class outlook.

Neither is it a question—as has been said—of a battle between town and country. It is not. I come from the country; I was the general secretary of the Agricultural Workers Union and I was most surprised to read in one of the newspapers the other day (I have forgotten which one) that a gentleman asked Reg Bottini what the union's view was of hare coursing, and apparently he said that Mr. Bottini had told him that the union supported hare coursing. That is completely untrue. In the first place, this fellow was out of date because Reg Bottini is no longer the general secretary; but the evidence given to the Select Committee from the NUAAW makes it very clear that in the past when I was general secretary the executive committee came down against hare coursing and then recently, under Reg Bottini's general secretaryship, they reiterated that they had not changed their policy and that they were opposed to hare coursing. If agricultural workers are not countrymen I should like to know who is; so the argument that it is a question as between town and country is quite wrong.

If I may say so, it is not a political question either. People may think it is; for some it may be, but for me and my colleagues it is not a political issue. It is an issue of attitudes and morals. Man has been called the "Lord of Creation". He has a responsibility to the animal world. It is true that we have to depend upon animals and use them to sustain our own life; but everyone, particularly farmers and farm workers, accepts that the use of animals has to be achieved with humanity and with compassion. Believing, as I do, that man has this responsibility, I am bound to stand up and make it clear that I so think. I do not accept that man has a right to exploit animals for his own pleasure. He should always behave towards them with that sense of oneness which is between animals and ourselves, and not do anything to cause them unnecessary pain and suffering.

As I said, this is an emotive question, and the fact that one feels so strongly about it tends to cloud judgment. I can well understand the protagonists wanting to produce evidence—as happened very many times—to support their own case. This is a pity. Interpretation of evidence should be unclouded by rationalisation or prejudice; but of course it is difficult to put aside prejudice. This is the reason why there were so many differences of interpretation among the people who gave evidence to the Committee. Not deliberately perhaps, but unintentionally, the evidence was being twisted to support one case or the other.

I tried, and the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, and others tried, to be objective in this matter. I must say that in the light of simple reason and common sense, I found some of the conclusions reached by the majority quite unacceptable. For example, it was argued that hares running for their lives—and those words are in the report—did not experience fear or terror. The report stated that the Committee rejected the view that coursing involved mental suffering for the hares—again a majority view.

In fact I moved an Amendment, which appears at page 224 of the minutes, which expressed clearly my own point of view, despite the evidence of Dr. Stoddard, who is a zoologist. The Amendment reads: Furthermore although behaviourists argue that hares do not experience fear or terror when they are being chased and are running for their lives the Committee believe that such an opinion cannot be substantiated and that whilst it would be improper to argue that animals feel these emotions to the same degree as man, nevertheless simple common sense indicates that to some degree"— and we do not know how much— animals experience fear and terror. The Committee believe that this is the view held by the general public". Conjecture, maybe, but I do suggest that it is much more reasonable to take that point of view than the point of view that animals feel no fear and experience no terror. If they do not do so, why do they run? It triggers off the same reactions as in us though perhaps not to the same degree. That Amendment was lost by five votes to two.

To put it at its lowest level, it seems to me that the balance of probability must be overwhelmingly in favour of the view which I have taken rather than the view expressed in the statement contained in the report. When it comes to physical pain the evidence given by the RSPCA at pages 52 and 53 of the minutes is, I think, quite conclusive. There are a number of reports from RSPCA inspectors—and I shall not read more than one or two of them: The first hare which was killed was first chased for about a minute before being caught. Once the dogs caught it they pulled it in different directions by its back legs. The winner ran off with the hare trailing on the ground". There is another one from inspector No. 93 at page 53— …of the 16 hares killed, one took about two minutes to die and featured in a tug-of-war between the two dogs", and so on. I shall not quote any more. How can one possibly toss that evidence aside? These men are not liars; they are reporting what they saw. It is true that the Committee did not see a hare being torn when we went to see coursing for ourselves. We were told it had happened; we were shown photographs of it. This evidence from the RSPCA seems to me to be absolutely conclusive.

Apart from that, attempts to rationalise the evidence gave rise to illogicalities. It was argued that the shooting of hares caused more suffering if the hare was only wounded and crept away to die. True enough perhaps. But it was accepted that when hares were protected then, at the end of the season, there was a preponderance of them and there had to be a hare shoot or shoots. Mr. McCrivick, coursing correspondent of Sporting Life, told the Committee that on one farm there had been a hare shoot and there would be another, and he thought that something like 260 hares were shot.

I am not arguing for or against shooting, but merely pointing out the illogicality to the arguments used. It was accepted that hares had to be controlled on economic grounds, but with the protection that has been offered to them in places where hare coursing took place there were more that had to be shot, so if they suffered from shooting they suffered more. I am not arguing whether that is right or wrong. I am merely speaking of the illogicality which arises when one inadvertently, perhaps unconsciously, tries to turn the evidence in support of one's own case.

I have spoken long enough. It must be clear that the conclusions reached were not unanimous and that it is essential to read the minutes of the proceedings in conjunction with the report. I think it is important that that should be realised. Without seeking in any way to moralise, and without trying to pose a "holier than thou" attitude, I believe that the evidence, objectively interpreted, must lead one to the conclusion that hare coursing is proved to be incompatible with the responsibilities which mankind, with all his power, ought to accept.

8.20 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, quite properly dealt with the Bill as it was presented to your Lordships and the reasons which led the Committee to feel that it was not a Bill which could usefully proceed. I, possibly rather out of order, propose to deal with the Bill as I think it ought to be, and I hope perhaps that the noble Lord opposite may be ready to take a certain amount of advice from me because I do not think he will find that he and I are very far apart. A fortnight ago your Lordships gave a Third Reading to a Bill which I had introduced, a conservation Bill, because it succeeded in conserving, if that is the right word, a number of wild creatures, without putting the man in the street unnecessarily at risk of committing an offence. Certainly with coursing, and I think other field sports as well, we have the same problem: we do not want to put the man in the country field at risk of committing an offence if we can secure, in this case, that there is no unnecessary cruelty to hares.

Speaking for myself, and for myself alone, and referring only to static coursing, where hares are driven one by one on to a coursing field and then pursued by two greyhounds in competition, and that on a predetermined field which is prepared for that particular purpose, I can see no justification whatever for killing hares if it is only in order to test the skills of two greyhounds. But from the evidence which we received and from the evidence of my own eyes, I am fairly satisfied that we can secure that a hare is not killed in those circumstances, and that if the dogs are muzzled. Greyhounds which race run in muzzles. Like all dogs running, they open their mouths; the muzzles allow then to open them far enough. The muzzles allow them to sweat through their mouths, which is the way in which dogs sweat.

The Committee therefore arranged for some tests with unmuzzled dogs and muzzled dogs. We had nine courses, three with unmuzzled dogs, six with muzzled dogs. One hare was killed by an unmuzzled dog. All the others escaped unharmed. People who are better at judging it than I am—because I had no experience whatever of coursing—told me that they thought that at least one hare was touched by a muzzled dog; it would otherwise have been captured, and it got away unharmed.

I am satisfied, if the dogs are muzzled, if the coursing field is prepared in such a way that muzzled dogs can run on it and will not get caught up in bushes, hedges and the like—your Lordships must remember that the coursing field has escape holes all round it, through which the hare can escape and through which the dogs cannot pass—it would be possible to test the skill of the clogs themselves without having any of the cruelty which is inevitably inflicted by killing the hares. If that is so, static coursing, as we call it, can no longer be regarded as a cruel sport. But I would just stress one point, that in this country we course the large and powerful brown hare and not rabbits or the small mountain hare, which are poor weak things and to which what I have said would not be applicable.

The noble Lord, Lord Collison, and others have suggested that even if there was no physical cruelty there was what somebody called mental cruelty inflicted on a hare by reason of its being chased. The noble Lord, Lord Collison, will remember, and so will the noble Lord on the Cross Benches, that at the first course we saw we watched the hare jinking and the dogs pursuing her towards one side of the field, until suddenly she jinked and went through an escape hole; the dogs were left non-plussed because they follow it by sight. The second hare went away to another boundary of the field and escaped in the same way. During that day's coursing and on subsequent ones it was quite obvious what was happening, that the hares knew where the escape holes were. Two or three would follow exactly the same course, would lead—"lead" is not the correct term—but they would be chased by the dogs and would work their way towards an escape hole which quite clearly they knew existed there. Quite clearly, they were on their own ground and knew that the escape holes were there, and then jinked at the last moment to escape. That satisfied me that if we could muzzle those dogs we could test their skill, and that the hares were not going to be unduly frightened. They were on their own ground, they knew what they were going to do. Except in so far as by bad luck one happaned to jink into the mouth of one of the following dogs, it is an exaggeration to say they were in control, but they were almost in control of what was going on.

I am an amateur naturalist with some little experience, but we did seek the confirmation of a professional biologist, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, explained. He pointed out to us what any of us who have read the journals of animal behaviour (which I have done for many years) would know, that by and large prey species do not suffer a great psychological trauma from being pursued. I have seen a hare being chased, not by a greyhound but by another dog. I have seen it get away from that dog, and when it is safely out of the way it will stop and start to nibble at the corn on which it is. It is quite clear that they are not panic stricken, terrified, and I do not believe that this theory that they suffer from psychological cruelty holds any water at all. I have friends who have seen—and I have seen it once myself—a cheetah in Africa going for a buck. The cheetah, like the greyhound, makes a sudden rush. If he does not catch his buck in the first rush, and it gets away, just as I have described happens with a hare, so you see with that buck which escapes from a cheetah—once he knows he is well out of the way any stress falls from him at once and he starts to graze, just as the hare which I have described.

My Lords, with that background I believe that one cannot look upon static coursing with muzzled dogs as a cruel sport. You then get down to what is called walking-up coursing; people walk across a series of fields with greyhounds, and if a hare gets up they let the dog go, and it kills the hare or fails to kill the hare, when it gets away unharmed. That is a convenient, usual and satisfactory way of killing hares which live in the open, and if you consider for one moment you will realise it is by far the most humane way of killing hares which live in the open. A hare will get up in front of a line of men about 35 or 40 yards ahead. If a man with a gun has a shot at it he is almost certain to hit it, but not very likely to kill it and the animal will go away wounded. As I have said, if greyhounds are used they will be on it within seconds. They will either kill it or it will escape. However, if the greyhounds are let loose almost as soon as the hare gets up, the chances are that it will be killed and I think that most of us would recognise that that is as humane a way of killing hares as we can find.

I remember what the noble and reverend Lord opposite—if that is the correct way to speak of him—said about the relations between man and beast and how it might degrade us to set dogs and the like upon them. I wonder whether he has really thought that out. I do not believe that the farmer or farm worker who takes a long dog out and sets it on a hare is degraded. That is not something which I do myself because I do not have a long dog. But I do not believe that it is degrading. I do not believe that it inflicts great and unnecessary pain on the hare.

Therefore, I hope that if the Government reintroduce another Bill—after all this one is now dead—they will bear two points in mind. First, that we can have static coursing on to a pre-arranged field with muzzled dogs without, I think, harming the hare in any way either physically or psychologically. If that cannot be done I would abolish it tomorrow. Secondly, I think that walking-up hares with greyhounds and using that as a method of control even if there is a bet on it while it is being done—betting may be wrong but in such a case I think that it is harmless—would not do any harm.

I hope that the noble Lord opposite will not only bear that in mind if he considers introducing another Bill, but will realise that the Select Committee discovered a number of facts which were not known when the Bill was drafted and could not have been known when the Bill or any of the previous Bills were debated in Parliament. I suggest that those facts and the way in which I have presented them raise an entirely new problem which can be dealt with without argybargy about whether we interfere with the man in the country or not.

8.33 p.m.


My Lords, it is de rigueur I take it to declare an interest. I have a double interest. I have four children and eight grandchildren and I am president of the League Against Cruel Sports of which my noble friend is chairman. This is not a debate about cruel sports in general. Therefore, I shall not increase suspicion or endeavour to diminish it by what may be considered ulterior motives. What is pertinent to this discussion is a particular Bill and the operation of a Select Committee upon that Bill.

Secondly, although I was fascinated by the reminiscences of George and Bill, it surely is unnecessary for me to confute the argument or the moral behind it because the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, has already done it, and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has given the coup de grace. Because if indeed the purpose is not to kill the hare, then there is no purpose whatever in thinking of the pot. What is more, no one would go out to shoot a hare taking the precaution of using only blank cartridges. It was an interesting story, but it had no relevance whatsoever to the particular argument with which we are presently concerned.

I should like to make my comments in three areas. First, the Bill. I am quite satisfied that it is an imperfect Bill and that it leaves large loopholes, as it stands, as between those who are committing what are criminal offences and those who are not. I accept that straight away. However, I recall that it is, in fact, the Committee itself which suggests that it is true that the Bill could be amended and, if so amended, it makes the rather dogmatic statement that it would be unenforceable. How does it know? In any case, is it not better that certain elements of an evil thing—if it is an evil thing—should be legislated against, even if we cannot fully cover the ground wherein that malignancy is likely to occur? I believe that the Bill can be so amended, and in principle I believe that it is right.

I turn to the problem that is enunciated quite simply in the conclusions. The Committee thought fit to consider this matter in the terms of suffering, and it enlisted an expert who spoke as regards some of these matters—so it seemed to me from reading the evidence—with the dogmatic aplomb of a ticket collector on an excursion train, because he appeared to give the evidence on which most Committee members seemed to be satisfied, that the amount of pain suffered by a hare which is being coursed is nothing like the amount of pain which would be caused if that hare were to be shot. That may be so. However, it seems to me an extraordinary proposition that we should not deal with one evil if we can because it happens to be less in extent than another evil which in its turn might well be dealt with. It seems to me ridiculous to say that we have no right to deal with petty theft because grand larceny is a much more serious offence.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but does not the noble Lord appreciate that if there is more suffering in shooting, then to try to legislate about less suffering seems quite extraordinary? If grand larceny were not a crime would the noble Lord start making petty larceny a crime first?


My Lords, no. I would endeavour to deal with both situations. One is far more a political situation. This is, I think a human situation in which the evidence is, as I see it, incontrovertible. Therefore, when Dr. Stoddart presumes to say, undoubtedly with a great deal of factual evidence, that he knows what goes on in the mind of a hare, I wonder.

As a moral philosopher of sorts, one would say there is no such thing as physical pain. There are physical conditions which promote pain, but they only promote pain in so far as they are consciously received and in regard to which a conscious response is made. It is perfectly true—and here I would agree heartily with the noble Earl—that the pain suffered by an animal is immediate, unreflective and does not involve prognosis, as pain, for instance, suffered by a human being. However, it seems that there is no argument anywhere in the findings of this Select Committee which would suggest to any reasonable person that it is not an unpleasant experience for the animal in question.

That leads me to the third and dominant argument so far as I am concerned, because the moral issue is contained in a very short paragraph on page 3 of the report. I wish to call the attention of the House to two statements in paragraph 8. It says: irrespective of the degree of the suffering of the hare, it is wrong for individuals to indulge in a sport which results in suffering to any animal. The Committee consider that this is a matter for an individual's conscience, not a basis for legislation". Had not the Committee in mind bearbaiting and cock fighting? Is it not true that there is, at present, legislation being considered to protect wild and domestic animals from the rigours of transport? Is it not true that there are many instances where those who behave in such a way ought to be legislated against?

The only surviving evidence that could be adduced is contained in the next extraordinary statement: Everyone is concerned to reduce the suffering of wild animals caused by man". Are they? I should have thought that for profit and money, and various other considerations, there are a great many people who are only too anxious, if they can make money out of it, to be totally indifferent to the suffering which they create. Therefore, I am not particularly impressed—and I am not adopting any "holier than thou" attitude—by this moral suggestion. It seems to me that whatever else the Committee has done, it has not really considered the gravamen of the kind of argument which was so kindly referred to by a previous speaker, which I presumed to produce in the last debate that we had on this particular topic.

It is not so much the kind of pain which is inflicted upon an animal; it is the reason for which that pain is inflicted. To shoot an animal for food may be justifiable, but to inflict any amount of pain on an animal for the pleasure of inflicting it, seems to me to be not only unmannerly but a degrading occupation. I would not for one moment say that a man who shoots for food is degraded, and I am in no mood to call any man degraded. But I would commit to this House, if I may, my own complete conviction that here is an element of cruelty, however small, which is not justifiable because it is not connected with any of the natural needs of man; it is a method of satisfying what I believe to be a rather objectionable quality in his make-up.

However, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Collison, this is a matter of profound and inbuilt prejudice or conviction. It is an interesting historical comment that when Tate and Brady, who were Caroline hymn writers, transposed hymns from Psalms in the Old Testament, one of the Psalms they used begins: As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so the soul pants after God". In the transcription of that Psalm by Tate and Brady this is what they said, and it is in the first verse: As the hart pants for the water-springs When heated in the chase". The very assumption that if a hart pants it is because it is heated in the chase, is part of an inborn and, I think, a very ingrowing concept that belongs to a certain type of humanity. I am not saying that it is bad; I am not saying that it is good. But I very much object to the idea that it represents what is now the general and overall appreciation of blood sports or this particular sport. I do not believe that that is true. In any case, I am quite sure—and this is the final point I would delay your Lordships by making—that here is a piece of violence, and in a world where we have far too much violence of every sort. It should be every reasonable person's ambition somehow to reduce the amount of violence in ways and in places where it can be reduced. This is one of the ways in which we can display a more tolerant and kindly attitude.

Therefore, I, for one, believe that here is a somewhat modest way of improving the general climate of kindliness and respect and, at the same time, enlisting our dominant and aggressive powers and our capacity to utilise the Creation in every part for the more suitable and, I believe, better uses for which God intended it. In that regard I believe that this Bill, so amended, can move in that direction and I very much hope it will.

8.43 p.m.


My Lords, I can agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soper, on just one thing. I agree that many men are extremely cruel to wild animals and have no real feeling for them. However I do not think that we find that cruelty in the average field sport if it is conducted strictly according to the rules. I do not think that some of us have been very logical tonight. The Bill which the Select Committee examined is highly illogical. However, I congratulate the noble Lord. Lord Trevelyan, on his report, which I thought was excellent.

I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. Here we have the extraordinary position—and I find it highly illogical—that under the rules of the National Coursing Club Her Majesty's Government say that coursing must be banned because it is cruel. I have spoken in all the debates on the Bill in this House, and as I have said, if I was was a hare I would far prefer to be coursed under the rules of the National Coursing Club than to be coursed by any Tom, Dick or Harry, to whom the Bill does not refer at all.

Under the rules of the National Coursing Club only 600 hares a year are killed; the hares are coursed on their natural ground and an average course lasts 35 seconds. The noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, said that only 150 hares suffer any wounding for one or two minutes. Thousands of people can go into the open countryside with their lurchers, where the hare has no refuge. Under the rules of the National Coursing Club, in 400 or 500 yards there will be a hole in the wall, a patch of kale or some cover, where the hare, who knows well the lie of the land, can escape. Weak hares are not coursed and if the hare is weak or young the slipper will not slip the greyhounds. A private individual—he may be a baker, a candlestick-maker, a miner or a farmer—can course a hare in the open countryside for a very long distance. That hare will suffer distress at the end and will almost surely be killed. If the hare has a lurcher chasing—and unlike greyhounds; lurchers can follow a scent—it is almost certain to be killed.

Briefly I want to touch on the sense of terror which a hunted animal has. I suppose that I should keep my remarks to hares. I have hunted with harriers and been beagling. A hare will go away for perhaps half a mile and will then squat and allow hounds to come right up to it; it will then go away again. That shows that the hare cannot be experiencing great fear of the fact that it is being chased. As I said in a previous debate, I have seen a hunted fox turn aside and chase a rabbit. That fox cannot have been worrying overmuch.

I have made some notes on what one or two noble Lords have said. The degradation of human nature was raised in connection with coursing and the chasing of a wild animal. I have said that at coursing meetings under the National Coursing Club weak hares are not chased and that a strong hare will escape. As we have heard, under the NCC rules the object of coursing is not to kill the hare but to test the greyhounds, although that is not so on a private course. The greyhound that will kill a hare will not necessarily come first in the competition.

My noble friend Lord Cranbrook raised the question of muzzling to which I should like briefly to refer. I am talking of National Coursing meetings because you would not get private individuals going out to course hares for the pot, to use muzzles. Muzzling at NCC meetings might work, and if it works it would be an excellent thing. My wife has two Pharaoh hounds, which are like small greyhounds but a bit more powerful. They are the oldest domesticated dog breed in the world. They are coursing dogs and they have good noses, but we use them as guard dogs. They are very good for that, because they used to guard the tombs of Pharaohs. We turn them out at night, and they have muzzles on. But they somehow kill rabbits when they are turned out with their muzzles on.


My Lords, my I intervene? I specifically said that I thought that muzzles would work on the brown hare and would not protect small things such as rabbits or the mountain hare, so the noble Viscount is running off at a tangent which is of little importance in this debate.


My Lords, we do not want to have a greyhound behaving like a cat with a mouse. What I am frightened of is, if a greyhound is muzzled and if the hare got confused—if the greyhound got right up to the hare it might run around in circles—the dog would be nuzzling it and might hit it with his forefeet. These Pharaoh hounds hit the rabbit with their forefeet and stun it. I think that an experiment on muzzling would be good. Whether it would work, I really do not know.

I should like to say that shooting is far more cruel. I do not know how many hundreds of thousands of hares are shot every year. I have said before in this House that out of that number there must be many thousands who go away to die a painful, lingering death. Take snaring, of which farmers do a great deal to protect their crops. You have a snare at a gate, or at a gap in a field, and snaring is extremely cruel. The hare may be in the snare for many hours, perhaps 24 hours, if the farmer is not conscientious about going around his snares.

If we are talking about cruelty, we must not, because it would be highly dishonest, dishonourable, and completely illogical, ban coursing under the NCC on the grounds of cruelty. If you can find any other excuse, ban it, but for heaven's sake do not ban it under the excuse of cruelty because you would make a laughing stock of the law and the Houses of Parliament. That is my opinion, and I shall not speak any longer.

8.54 p.m.


My Lords, may I be permitted to intervene for a moment, albeit at this late hour? I should like to say just two things. One is in relation to what my noble friend Lord Denham said in his speech, which could perhaps be misunderstood and then subsequently taken completely out of context. He gave the slight impression, and I am sure that it was unintended, that field sports were predominantly enjoyed by country people who enjoyed food, rather than by town people who consumed food. I can assure noble Lords that this is indeed far from the case. Many town people take part in a great number of field sports, particularly fishing, and particularly in the equestrian world whether it is hunting, racing, or enjoying week-ends at three-day or two-day events. Indeed, many town people are great supporters of field sports as a whole.

I should also like to say that, while we are considering the well-being of all animals and not only hares, it would be perhaps no bad thing if, instead of concentrating on a subject on which there is quite a bit of doubt about whether or not it is cruel, we turned our attention to activities which are undoubtedly so cruel as to hardly be repeatable in your Lordships' House. I refer to the people who wantonly take out lurcher dogs. They are poachers, and they slip these lurchers on to deer at night, particularly in the West Country. The cruelty that these dogs inflict upon these animals must be quite unbelievable. I hope very much that Her Majesty's Government can find the time to bring in some stringent measures indeed to put paid to this perfectly despicable practice.

8.56 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby for raising this matter and giving the Government the opportunity of stating their views on the report of the Select Committee. That, of course, was my noble friend's intention. It also gives us the opportunity—and in this I join with him—of thanking the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, and the members of the Select Committee for the very substantial amount of work they did in considering this Bill. I say that notwithstanding the fact, as will not altogether be to the surprise of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, that the Government do not share the views of the majority of the Select Committee. Nevertheless, the members undoubtedly did a substantial amount of work on behalf of the House, and I should like to begin by thanking them and expressing our appreciation, and I think everybody else's appreciation, of that work.

Perhaps I might start by saying what I do not propose to talk about rather than what I do. First of all, I do not propose to follow the temptation of following the noble Lord, Lord Denham—whom we very much welcome speaking from the Opposition Front Bench on this occasion; normally he has to remain silent because of his office—and get involved in a general discussion about field sports. He referred to discussions which we have read about in the newspapers about the Home Policy Committee of the Labour Party. The situation, which will not in any way surprise the noble Lord, is that the General Election Manifesto of the Labour Party is drawn up as a result of the joint discussion between the members of the National Executive and the members of the Cabinet. That meeting takes place at the time of a General Election. There is therefore nothing I have to say today on that wider question.

I should like to come to the point made forcefully by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, and in fact touched on to some degree by the noble Lord speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, and that is the political motivation behind this. I in fact agree with my noble friend Lord Collison, that this is not a Party issue. But I am bound to say, having heard the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, that one would have thought that it was. He referred to it as a political charade. He said that there was a section of the Labour Party with all sorts of hideous and disagreeable views on this particular matter.

I must give some news to the noble Earl, and anyone who thinks like him. I have just examined the Division List on the Second Reading of the Hare Coursing Bill which took place in another place on 13th June 1975. There was no question of Party issue, because who was there? Mr. Penhaligon, a gentleman whom the noble Earl may know, a member of his Party, voted against hare coursing. I am sure there was no question of political motivation so far as he was concerned. I am sure he took the view that the Bill was right on its merits. Then we had Mr. Terence Higgins, formerly financial secretary to the Treasury in Mr. Heath's Administration, a distinguished Conservative Member of Parliament. We had Mr. Hayhoe, a member of Mrs. Thatcher's Front Bench team, and we have one other member, Mr. George Gardiner, a member of the "Gang of Four" according to the Press, and a very intimate adviser, and he voted for the Bill. That is surely a clear illustration that there is widespread bi-partisan support for this measure. There may be a number of Members of my Party who are strongly opposed to the measure, but, in the light of this, it would in my view be very difficult to maintain that this is a simple, ordinary, routine Party confrontation. As I have indicated from evidence from Hansard, that is simply not true.


My Lords, what the noble Lord is citing goes against his own argument. I know that my Party in another place had a free vote on this and I think the Liberal Party did too. Can the noble Lord confirm that his side had a free vote?


My Lords, the noble Lord must be clear as to the particular point he is making. If I understood the position correctly, he was suggesting that there was a substantial wish so far as the Labour Party was concerned on this question, to drive this through against intense opposition from men of goodwill in other parts of the House. I am pointing out that there was significant support for this measure from Members of the noble Lord's own Party.

Of course it was a Government Bill, and there has been no mystery about that. I am pointing out to the noble Lord that, notwithstanding that, it had a substantial amount of support from Members of his Party, and indeed from a Member of the Liberal Party; there were not all that many Liberals in the House on that occasion but, as I said, Mr. Penhaligon voted for the Bill, as did a significant number, though a small minority—I give the noble Lord that point—of Members of the Conservative Party. The point I am making, therefore, is that there is demonstrably bi-partisan support for this measure. It therefore seems to me that some of these allegedly sinister motives do not bear a moment's examination.

I have only one slight quarrel with my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and that is as a result of the fact that he took issue with some Member of the House who, speaking during the Committee stage, I think it was, of the Protection of Children Bill, said that my noble friend preferred animals to children, and as a result of that we had an absolute orgy of Members of the House indicating that they had four children. That puts me at something of a slight disadvantage in that I can admit to only two; I am therefore at a significant disadvantage and I apologise to the House for this considerable failure on my part.

I will now deal in detail, as they require, with the issues raised in the report of the Committee. I do not think I need speak at any length so far as the Government's attitude to hare coursing is concerned because this has been made absolutely clear on a number of occasions and, as I have already pointed out, there have been three Government Bills dealing with this matter. As I have indicated, two of them secured considerable all-Party support in another place, and one was introduced in your Lordships' House.

We believe that the proposals in the three Bills were right as regards policy and drafting. However, the Select Committee to which noble Lords referred the last of these three Bills did not agree. The Government do not agree with that particular conclusion, and I shall come to that shortly. I begin by drawing attention to the fact that the findings of the Select Committee were arrived at by four votes to three; it was not a unanimous report and I well understand the position of my noble friend Lord Collision when it was assumed by some people that it was in fact a unanimous report of the Committee. No doubt that created a great deal of misunderstanding. The minority unsuccessfully put forward a view, a conclusion, which was favourable to the Bill.

The contents of the Report itself fall into two parts; a critical discussion of the text of the Bill and a similar consideration of the arguments for and against hare coursing. In the Government's view, the part of the report which calls for most careful examination is the discussion of the amount of suffering involved in hare coursing, a point touched on by my noble friend Lord Soper and several noble Lords who took part in this short debate. The assessment of suffering in animals is inevitably an extremely difficult matter; I would not in any way seek to minimise the problem. The Government's view of the degree of suffering, however, is that it justifies making this activity unlawful. In our view no defensible need for competitive hare coursing can be advanced. That there is some suffering is clearly self-evident, and it is, in our view, unnecessary suffering. The Select Committee itself concedes that competitive coursing involves some suffering and it makes its own proposals for reducing this; at this point the Select Committee very nearly concedes the Government's case. The fact is that there is suffering, that it is unnecessary and that it is, I believe, repugnant to a majority of our fellow citizens

One of the Select Committee's criticisms of the Bill is that it is wrong to use the criminal law for a purpose of this kind, and that point was to some extent supported by Lord Denham tonight. Yet the Committee appended to its report a Bill—the Committee included a Bill in its report as an appendix, as Lord Denham will recall—which it thought would serve to reduce the suffering that was involved. This was a Bill which itself relied on the sanctions of the criminal law to serve its purpose. That appears in the Select Committee's own report, so on the general question as to whether the criminal law should move into this particular area, there is no disagreement at all; the Select Committee concedes this point.


If my memory serves me, my Lords, that Bill was proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and we thought it right to put it into the report, but I do not think it was discussed in any way by the report.


With great respect, it—


My Lords, may I cofirm that? That Bill was put in entirely at my instigation because I thought that it was probably a better way of dealing with the problem, than that proposed. It was my responsibility—my responsibility only—and I am grateful that my colleagues allowed me to add it as an appendix.


My, Lords, I am glad that the noble Earl has had the opportunity to point that out, because I must say that it does not appear in the report as simply a view of one member. It appears—


My Lords, I do not want to go on about this, but if the noble Lord looks at the report he will see that it specifically refers—I cannot remember in which paragraph—to one of our members who had prepared it. That was me; it was not the Committee.


My Lords, I hope that I have paid a generous tribute to the work of the Committee; I certainly intended it to be generous. However, I should say that it would have been helpful if this matter had been made clearer in the report. It gives rise to significant misunderstanding, and I am very grateful that the noble Earl has had the opportunity of clearing up this matter. The situation in this regard appears to be wholly illogical, in that there is proposed an amendment of the criminal law when in fact, as the noble Earl has pointed out, this is solely his own view.

Another criticism of the Bill, which was made in the report, was that it was wrong, as a matter of policy, to catch, as the Bill would have done, relatively informal kinds of competitive coursing, which were often difficult to distinguish from ordinary hunting, and that the Bill should have been restricted to formal matches. Our view is that this criticism is unjustified. The basis of the Bill was that it should bring to an end unnecessary suffering. Unnecessary suffering is caused when the hare is coursed only for the purpose of comparing the ability of the dogs. This applies whether the coursing takes place on a formal occasion, or is merely a "friendly" between farmers on their own fields. In the Government's view, the only distinction which can properly be made is between any form of competitive coursing where the primary object is to compare the dog's abilities, and the catching of the hare is not material, and any other forms of coursing.

Whatever the arguments on the merits of coursing when it takes the form of a simple hunt, none of these applies when it is organised, in however rudimentary a way, simply to compare the abilities of two dogs regardless of the suffering caused to the hunted hare. The critics of the Bill have made much of the apparent anomaly of distinguishing between these two situations which may superficially appear extremely similar. In the Government's view these critics have overlooked the fundamental importance of the distinction on which the policy of the Bill rests. That distinction turns on the intention of the coursing. The Bill would prohibit only that form of coursing—but all varieties of that form—in which the suffering of the hare is, beyond any question whatever, unnecessary.

Finally, the report criticised the drafting of the Bill on the grounds of some degree of both vagueness and uncertainty. It seems to the Government that these criticisms may partly have been directed more at the policy of the Bill than at the drafting, and may partly have been based on propositions which were not those advanced by the Government themselves. However, there is little difficulty in devising some form of alterntive draft to achieve precisely this objective. In my view it would be an absurdity to say that when a point is made regarding the drafting of a Government Bill, we will stick rigidly to the form of words which appear in the Bill. Of course, we shall take this point into consideration, but at the moment we are not impressed by the strength of this view.

So much for the Select Committee's criticisms of the Bill. The report went on to a substantive discussion of the various issues involved in hare coursing. I have already referred to a particular feature of the Bill when I became involved in discussion with the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, on the point regarding the criminal law. I refer here to the fact that criticism was made, and that notwithstanding that an alternative Bill appeared as an appendix. There is, I believe, another contradiction between the Committee's conclusion that the amount of suffering involved is so little that no action of any kind needs to be taken, and the Committee's own recommendations for action to reduce the suffering which undoubtedly occurs.


My Lords, may I make that quite clear? I thought the noble Lord said that the Committee had said that the suffering was so little that no action should be taken.


No, my Lords. I think that if the noble Lord looks at Hansard tomorrow he will see the point I was making. I did not in fact say that. I should like, if I may, to make this further point. It is well known that competitive hare coursing on any substantial scale is practised in only some parts of this country. In many parts of the country there is no competitive hare coursing of any kind. Despite this fact, there is no evidence, nor does the report anywhere suggest, that the questions of conservation and control of the hare population are unsatisfactorily dealt with in those areas where competitive hare coursing does not in fact take place at all.

There is, I think, another inconsistency in the report's thinking, and that is when it is argued that there is a surplus of hares which has to be reduced. Despite the fact that the report specifically says that shooting hares is more cruel than coursing, it nevertheless proposes that in competitive hare coursing the kill should be eliminated.

The Government's view on the matters which we have been discussing this evening is clear-cut. Competitive hare coursing involves suffering; it serves no useful purpose whatever; we believe that it is repugnant to the majority of people in this country, and we believe, also, that it should be abolished. The Government believe that in the field of cruelty to animals there is abundant precedent for resorting to the criminal law for this particular purpose, and that the policy of the Bill introduced into Parliament on so many occasions is the right one. It remains the Government's intention that a Bill to achieve this end should reach the Statute Book at an early opportunity.