HL Deb 14 May 2003 vol 648 cc233-7

2.49 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they propose to allow civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to attend hunt meets.

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

My Lords, staff in Defra have not been prevented from attending hunt meets in a private capacity. However, all Defra staff are subject to a duty of impartiality, so it may not be appropriate for an individual staff member to attend a hunt meet—either in support or in protest—if that creates a conflict of interest.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, it is difficult to see how there can be a conflict of interest in just attending a hunt meet. Does the Minister recall the leader in The Times of 28th April? It suggested—anticipating the review of Defra by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—that many hundreds of senior Defra staff would be required to put on their wellies, leave Whitehall and go and live in the countryside in order to be nearer those whose lives they rule. That is a splendid idea.

Will the Minister consider actively encouraging some of those "expats" to go to a hunt meet, to follow the hunt either by car or on foot —and thus to learn from close-to what tremendous enjoyment of the countryside hunting gives to thousands of people?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord anticipates what I am sure will be some lively debate in this House when the Hunting Bill reaches it. We have yet to receive the details of my noble friend Lord Haskins's report on the structure of Defra and its agencies. It is important to recognise that a good number of Defra and the agency staff delivering services to the countryside are resident in the countryside. They do not all—contrary to the noble Lord's impression—live and work in Whitehall. They have close contact with many in the countryside, including those involved in field sports and other activities.

As to the question of impartiality, I was referring only to those few members of staff who are dealing with the hunt proposals. Other members of Defra staff are perfectly free to do whatever they like in their own time.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, are officials from Defra allowed to attend hunt meets in France where hunting has flourished ever since the right to hunt was granted to the people by the French Revolution?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure that this House would approve of all aspects of the French Revolution. Francophile though I am, some things have moved on further in the United Kingdom than they have in France.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, has the Minister attended a hunt meet? If he has not, will he do so in order to improve his knowledge and, indeed, his impartiality?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer to that is, "Not for many years". That is the kind of question addressed to me when, as a junior civil servant in the Ministry of Aviation, I was asked whether I could have a view on a matter if I could not fly an aeroplane. One can take a view on these matters whether or not one has actually participated in them. That applies to civil servants as much as it does to Ministers.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I hunted for one-third of the past century while MP for Huntingdonshire—until I was 70. Is the Minister aware that if fox hunting is abolished, foxes will suffer terribly because they are so prolific and so destructive of poultry and game that they will have to be killed by other means, which are much more cruel than fox hunting?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, again we are anticipating other debates. I do not accept that finality, either in terms of the relative cruelty or as to the effect on pest control. Analysis has shown that a small proportion only of foxes die as a result of hunt activity. Already, therefore, most foxes are controlled by means other than by hunting with hounds.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I refer back to my noble friend's answer as to getting staff delivering services to live nearer to the people who are to enjoy them. Does that mean that it is now government policy that the Home Secretary should be based in HMP Wandsworth and the Minister for Defence in Aldershot?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that I shall repeat my noble friend's remark, "Don't tempt me". There is a serious point behind the report of my noble friend Lord Haskins and the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry; namely, that a perception of Defra staff is different from the reality. The reality is that most people who deliver services are fairly close to the point at which those services are received. It is only really the "upper echelons"—if one wants to put the matter that way—of the former MAFF and DETR who are located in Whitehall. It may well be that we shall want to deliver some further decentralisation. It is not the case that we are all already metropolitan.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not possible for Defra officials to attend a hunt—totally impartially rather than in a partisan way—in order to observe what actually happens so that they can speak from experience? One does not have to be partisan when one attends a hunt meet.

Further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, if Home Office officials go to the country to see what happens—they do not have to actually live there for a long time, and I understand that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, does not say that they must live there—they will understand it much better and get more co-operation from the local people. For my own part, I should welcome any civil servant who cares to come and see what actually happens on the ground.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is important to recognise that those involved in dealing with hunting, both currently and in previous periods, have a lot of contact with hunt organisations and people involved with hunting. That has been very much the case over the past few months. I am asked whether it is sensible for people who are directly involved with the drafting of the Bill to appear at a hunt, with the consequent suggestion that they are supportive of hunting. That would not he any more sensible than it would if they were to join a bunch of hunt protesters. The impartiality of those particular civil servants needs to be preserved.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, with regard to my noble friend's reply to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that a relatively small number of foxes are killed by hunting and that most of them are killed by other means on the basis of pest control, does he acknowledge that if hunting is banned far greater numbers will be killed as a result of those other means?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I certainly accept that a greater number would be killed by other means. The point I make is that a small percentage of the total deaths of foxes result from hunting with hounds. Clearly, there are different situations in different parts of the country, but the average is well below 10 per cent of all fox deaths.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, would it not perhaps be more sensible for the MPs who condemn hunting to go to the countryside and attend a hunt rather than the civil servants?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, regrettably I have no power of direction over MPs. Certainly, they should visit the countryside. Whether they actually watch or participate in a hunt is entirely up to them.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, is it not important that civil servants have the opportunity to go out into the countryside and see how it works? The question is a little wider than that of my noble friend. Are the Government having second thoughts on seeking derogation for the fallen stock issue? It hugely affects the hunts. At the moment, as the noble Lord knows, the hunts collect fallen stock, but it is putting enormous pressures on them. Civil servants should have the opportunity to understand the issues at first hand. So my question is directly about the hunts but also about the wider issue.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in relation to visits to the countryside, I must try and correct once again the view that Defra civil servants, and indeed civil servants from many other departments, spend all their time within one mile of Whitehall. I can assure noble Lords that at this very moment a large number of Defra civil servants are in the countryside, talking to country people of various descriptions and trying to deal with those problems. In my own case—if I was included in the question—I try and get out to the countryside as frequently as I can. It is therefore not the case that Defra are a faceless bunch of Whitehall bureaucrats.

So far as concerns the fallen stock issue, the Government, the Civil Service and Ministers are aware of it. We have had several discussions with industry and others. The position is that we have proposed a scheme whereby a small levy is taken from farmers. We are still assessing whether the disposal scheme proposed by the Government is viable in the light of the response. It will be a week or two before I can give a clear answer. The issue of derogation does not therefore arise.