HL Deb 23 January 2003 vol 643 cc879-80

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will abolish game licences.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, licences for taking and dealing in game are intended to discourage poaching, to encourage compliance with close seasons for the conservation of quarry species, and to protect food safety. Representations indicate that food retailers, among others, would welcome changes. We are sympathetic to that. However, we need to reflect carefully on the way forward, taking into account the wider implications of any decision to reform the current arrangements.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I declare an interest as one of the 8 per cent of holders of shotgun licences who has bought a game licence. As the Government know perfectly well—the Minister gave me a Written Answer two weeks ago—these licences cost more to collect than they produce. They collect an infinitesimally small amount—a quarter of a million pounds. Nobody is prosecuted for not having a game licence. Surely, unenforced laws are bad laws. Are the Government not keen, in these marginal circumstances, to lift the burden of this and other similarly nonsensical licences lurking in Whitehall? Will they not do something about it? We need act ion not words.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, 49,000 people have taken out a game licence. The regime has implications for conservation, the preservation of quality of the retail trade, and gun laws, with which it interfaces, so it would be complex to change it. In principle, I agree with the noble Lord. If the price of a game licence had kept pace with inflation, it would be about £2,000 rather than £6.

Further to the noble Lord's last remark, I hope that he does not blame this Government or their immediate predecessors. The blame rests entirely with the Liberal Democrats, as it was the late Lord Grey and the late Lord Palmerston who introduced the provisions.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I declare an interest as having paid £2 at Christmas for a game licence to allow me to participate in taking game for two weeks. I am interested to hear the Minister say that he regards licensing as a deterrent to poaching. Has he heard that the Durham police force will no longer take up poaching cases? How does that fit with the Government's promise to be tough on crime?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it ill behoves a Minister to comment on the operational priorities of any chief constable. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Durham police force is concentrating on other rural crime issues. The contribution of game licences to the prevention of poaching may not be as great as it was when they cost substantially more, and when poaching was one of the biggest crimes in the countryside.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, given the reasons the Minister gave in his first Answer and the changes that may be brought about if the Hunting Bill is passed, is his department reviewing the question of tagging deer carcasses? They are subject to particular problems and would benefit very much from tagging. When the House discussed the matter previously, some of the impediments were technological. They have 'peen overcome in the nine years since the House last discussed this in depth.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the regime covering the taking and marketing of deer could benefit from better traceability measures, including tagging. I understand that not all the technological and operational impediments have been overcome, but, when that happens, the Government will regard such measures as desirable.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, if the Government are not prepared to withdraw the licence to kill game, will they take steps to ensure that a larger proportion of those killing game have such licences, if they feel it necessary? If not, why not support my noble friend Lord Marlesford?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the implication of what I have said on behalf of the Government is that this is a complex area. If it were just a question of licensing the taking of game, and considering the implications for the discouragement of poaching, it would be easy to remove the regime. But there are also implications for conservation and the regulations on the use of game for food. If we removed the licensing regime, those complexities would need to be addressed and would possibly be replaced.