HL Deb 16 January 2004 vol 657 cc818-26

4.4 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in protesting about the hour at which these proceedings are taking place on a Friday. It is ludicrous that we rose at 3.30 p.m. yesterday. The problem is also linked to the new system of fixing Friday business—and too rarely—so that too much accumulates on Fridays. That is very unfair on Members. The majority of noble Lords who might have supported my Bill—many have spoken to me—understandably wanted to be home before midnight. The fact that business keeps Ministers here this late would almost make some of us weep.

The Bill, although variously amended and improved, has received a Second Reading on three occasions—in 2001, 2003 and now. I need not, therefore, detain the House with too much detail already in Hansard. But, for the record, and for new readers, I must again summarise its purpose. The existing Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 protects wild mammals, but the offences are limited to those listed, such as stabbing and burning, while certain activities, such as lawful hunting and shooting, are exempt.

This Bill goes much wider in its protection of mammals. It removes the list of offences and the list of exemptions, replacing them with a general offence of intentionally causing undue suffering. It also establishes a system for the recognition and approval of governing bodies and their codes of conduct, covering all activities relating to wild mammals. This system is to be conducted by an independent authority composed of representatives of distinguished countryside bodies and financed by countryside organisations. Adherence to those codes by practitioners of country activities could be used as part of a defence against prosecution under the Act.

The Bill has clear advantages. It would enhance protection of wild mammals from undue suffering. It sets a consistent standard covering all offences and all mammals. It establishes an authority that is independent, expert and balanced, recognising governing bodies and approving their codes to ensure that best practices are observed in the management and conservation of wild mammals. The authority would ensure that activities are carried out in a normal and humane manner; it could not approve a code that simply brought the activity to an end.

For those concerned with animal welfare and cruelty, the Bill is an advance on existing animal welfare legislation, which is in many ways incoherent and piecemeal. It is certainly an advance on the narrow Bill on hunting with dogs, which was demolished here in the previous Session. That Bill covered only four mammals—fox, deer, hare and mink—and permitted alternative methods of control, such as shooting and snaring, which can often cause more suffering. This Bill protects all wild mammals from undue suffering in all circumstances. It is in line with the Burns report and would meet what the Prime Minister and Peter Hain have asked for—the resolution of the fox-hunting issue in this Parliament.

It would allow the testing in the courts of the allegations of cruelty in fox-hunting. If anti-hunting organisations really care about cruelty to animals, they should support the Bill. Their spasmodic opposition suggests to some that they care more about hating people who hunt than about animal suffering.

The Bill was previously supported on all sides of the House, although the Minister expressed reservations—usually helpful—and on each occasion, as today, we have listened and amended the Bill accordingly. Should he have further helpful suggestions, we will again listen to see if we can include them in the Bill.

The change to this Bill, compared with that passed in the previous Session, relates to a comment by my noble friend Lord Whitty at Third Reading. He rightly pointed out that under Section 2 a defendant might plead that his action had been in the usual conduct of a customary activity, even though contrary to an express provision of the relevant code. That is not our intention, and I trust that the new drafting remedies this.

I thank the Minister for his contributions to improving this Bill, though that may not always have been the prime objective of his department. In particular. I thank the many country organisations, especially the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers Union, the Countryside Alliance and the Middle Way Group for bringing their great expertise to improving this Bill. I thank particularly the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, for his skilful and tireless legal drafting.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Donoughue.)

4.11 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft—I am not Lord Mancroft, for the benefit of Hansard—I rise to support this Bill. I declare my interest as chairman of St Martin's Magazines, publishers of Country Illustrated and Hunting Magazine, field sports and rural interest magazines.

I warmly support the noble Lord's Bill. As he has explained. it will improve and simplify the current Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 by substituting the amendment that he has introduced for the arbitrary list of activities that, under the 1996 Act, are deemed to amount to cruelty to wild mammals. Bizarrely—because that Act started life as an anti-hunting Bill—hunting, shooting, coursing and pest control are specifically excluded from the provision of the 1996 Act. The noble Lord's Bill would remove that exemption.

I welcome this Bill because as a supporter of fox hunting I believe that it should not enjoy specific exemption under the Act, but should be within rather than without the law. If this Bill were to be enacted, it would allow those who claim that fox hunting is more cruel than other methods of control to test that claim in court. I am confident that properly run hunts have nothing to fear from the Bill.

The Bill will simply and effectively improve protection for wild mammals across the hoard, rather than in the somewhat piecemeal way of the present Act. It will effectively address concerns not only with hunting, but also with other methods of control such as shooting, snaring, gassing or trapping, thus guaranteeing a wholesale improvement in animal welfare. I am therefore a little surprised at the faint praise with which this Bill was greeted by the Government when it was debated in this House in March last year. I hope that the noble Lord's amendments will satisfy the Government in that regard.

Each of the Government's objections has been met halfway or further by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. If the Government are serious about improving protection for wild mammals, they should now find it in themselves to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for introducing this Bill and should pick it up as a government Bill. It would at a stroke get them out of their bind on hunting; they could tell all those who oppose hunting, including those tiresome Back-Benchers who hijacked the Government's Bill late last year. that it should be a given that it makes no sense to ban one method of fox control while leaving others in place that cause more suffering. They should tell them that if they believe that hunting is more cruel than other methods of control, this Bill gives them the means to prove it.

That should satisfy those who have a principled objection to hunting on the grounds of cruelty, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, pointed out, it will not satisfy those who engage in good, old-fashioned class warfare, or those who have been handsomely paid to deliver a ban, and forget animal welfare if it gets in the way of that ban.

That brings me to the strange case of the RSPCA. I single out the RSPCA, distinct from political lobbying groups, because it is a charity, enjoying all the privileges of the Charities Act. That status is based on its aims to prevent cruelty to animals and to improve animal welfare. The Bill that we are debating today does exactly that. Yet what is the reaction of the RSPCA? It is not a whole-hearted welcome, a cautious welcome, or even a wait-and-see, but a cheap knee-jerk dismissal of a serious attempt to improve animal welfare. I would like to ask: why?

All that the RSPCA has said is that the Bill is "unhelpful". In what sense is it "unhelpful"? Surely, not to animal welfare, which is central to the whole Bill. I can conclude only that it is unhelpful to its campaign to ban hunting, unhelpful to its fund-raising and, thus, unhelpful to the various jobsworths in the RSPCA who are dependent on that campaign for their salaries, their cars, their pensions and their perks. Its refusal to engage with the issues raised by the Bill is also an admission that its own evidence will not stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.

I very much hope that the Minister will, unlike the RSPCA, engage positively with the aims of the Bill. It will help the Government to move from the unhappy position in which they find themselves following the hijack of their Hunting Bill by extremists. They will receive great support from rural communities if they concentrate their efforts on improving animal welfare rather than seeking to regulate human behaviour on the basis of subjective moral judgments. It is on those grounds that I warmly welcome this Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I very much hope that the Government will decide to take it forward.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords. I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, on being so persistent since 2001 in bringing forward this Bill. I believe that he is right to do so. When one examines the Bill, it clearly is the best solution: it resolves all issues of cruelty to wild mammals, including hunting with dogs, and it caters for all wild mammals, which should be protected and treated equally from undue suffering. That is an excellent formula for resolving all kinds of problems in this area.

The noble Lord mentioned that the Bill is consistent with the Burns report on hunting. As yet it has not been said that the Bill ensures wild animals are treated in the same way as domestic animals. That is very important and, I think, everyone in the United Kingdom can understand that. This is understandable legislation, should we be fortunate enough to see it on the statute book.

As the noble Lord said, the Bill also incorporates consultation. Indeed, the authority that is to be set up in the schedule to the Bill will produce the code of practice, which will be underwritten by law. That is very important because everyone will be able to see that fair play is taking place, including the RSPCA. The result would be an immediate improvement to the welfare of all wild mammals.

I hope that the Bill—I am sure that it will if it becomes an Act—will settle many controversial views on both sides of the argument and produce a compromise that can be accepted by all reasonable people. In that spirit, I hope that the Minister will give the Bill a fair wind and that during this Session it will get on the statute book, as it deserves to be.

4.19 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for presenting this Bill. I congratulate him on his tenacity in continuing to bring forward important legislation that tackles the question of deliberate cruelty to wild mammals. It was back in March 2003 that a similar Bill was debated at Second Reading. It is my sorrow, and, I am sure, the sorrow of the whole House, that Lord Hardy of Wath is no longer with us. His concern and contributions to environmental and animal welfare matters were put with great knowledge and passion.

Before I go any further, I should remind noble Lords that Members on these Benches operate in free vote territory on issues which touch on hunting. So some of my comments today and at later stages will reflect my own views. I hunted with the Quorn and rode a great deal in my younger days. I am sure that we are all concerned about animal suffering and support any moves that aim to provide greater protection to wild mammals.

The Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, highlights the inconsistencies in current animal welfare legislation. It will go a long way towards clarifying the law in relation to wild mammals and protecting them from intentional and unnecessary suffering. If approved, the Bill would give wild mammals the same protection as that enjoyed by domestic and farm animals. Along with other noble Lords, I hope that outside organisations and charities will support this Bill. In evidence submitted to Defra's consultation on new animal welfare legislation conducted in August 2002, the RSPCA submitted evidence from which I should like to quote: a specific offence of cruelty should remain, but should be worded without a restrictive list of particular activities which may date over time". This Bill would address those concerns and marks an advance on the current, piecemeal legislation.

I am sure that many people who are members or supporters of the RSPCA and other animal charities would be horrified if they thought that their organisation would not support such changes. It is an illogical stance. My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke clarified the position and I believe that the stance adopted by the RSPCA is unhelpful.

Let us hope that the RSPCA can be persuaded to change its mind, especially since the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, has altered his original 2003 Bill and addressed the concerns expressed at the time. Surely it must be right to safeguard animal welfare and to give each species of wild mammal the same level of protection.

The Bill would establish an independent authority comprised of representatives from different organisations which are identified in the Bill. During the Bill's progress through its stages last year, additions were made to the list following concerns expressed by some that the original list was too narrow. I am sure that it was correct to make the alterations.

The independent authority would have the power to recognise various bodies in order that they could produce codes of conduct for particular activities. Once approved by the authority, those codes would be submitted to the Secretary of State for final approval. Once a code of conduct is approved, abidance by it could make up part of a defence against causing undue suffering. The codes of conduct must be, in respect of the normal and humane manner of conducting any activity in connection with wild mammals or one or more species of wild mammal". Last year, when responding to the Second Reading, debate, the Minister acknowledged that that original Bill had merits. He went on to say that: The principle in the Bill of providing a coherent and simpler approach to the protection of wild mammals is a desirable objective".—[Official Report, 7/3/03; col. 1081.] I hope that the Minister will be able to support this Bill, which has taken into account the concerns expressed during the passage of the previous legislation. For my own part, obviously I support it.

Before I sit down, if a new Minister is to respond, perhaps I may raise once again the issue already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, at the start of our Second Reading debate this afternoon. I warmly welcome the Bill.

4.24 p.m.

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

My Lords, first, I join with the noble Baroness in regretting the absence from our proceedings of Lord Hardy of Wath. He always made extremely effective contributions to animal welfare issues. We shall all miss him.

The stated intention of this Bill is to extend and improve the protection which the law gives to wild mammals. My noble friend Lord Donoughue has explained how he believes that would be achieved through this legislation. As he and other noble Lords have said, this is not the first time that a similar Bill has been considered by your Lordships. On previous occasions I have had to say that, while I accept that there is merit in trying to provide a coherent and comprehensive framework for the protection of wild mammals, the Government could not agree to the principles of the Bill. I regret to say that I have to disappoint the noble Lord by saying the same today, even though, as he explained, he has taken on board a number of the comments I made during the previous Session and introduced changes which are a definite improvement to aspects of the Bill.

However, our reasons for not agreeing with the Bill are fairly simple. First and centrally, the Bill would create a new offence of intentionally causing "undue suffering". This would replace the existing offence of committing specified acts with the intention of causing "unnecessary suffering", a long-established concept. "Undue suffering" is a new and untried concept. 1 t presupposes that the suffering which human beings may cause to wild mammals can somehow be measured on a scale and that there is a point on that scale beyond which the suffering becomes excessive, unacceptable and therefore unlawful.

This misses the central point that it is unacceptable to cause any suffering to a wild mammal for a purpose which is not necessary or which could be achieved in a more humane way. That is why the existing law rightly defines cruelty as the causing of "unnecessary suffering". By contrast, logically, the Bill would allow people to cause suffering which it could be argued may not be "undue"—whatever that means— but which is certainly not necessary. So the Bill would permit at least some unnecessary suffering and in some cases, therefore, dilute the existing protection.

My second area of objection is more complicated in that the Bill provides for exceptions from the main offence which could be used to allow, for example. field sports to continue regardless of the suffering they cause. Let us look at the proposed exceptions.

The proposed new Section 2(1)(a) exempts all acts—presumably however cruel—which are carried out in accordance with a recognised code. Those codes will be drawn up by organisations recognised for the purpose by an authority composed of representatives of nine bodies. I accept that my noble friend has now included the RSPCA alongside the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, but these are the only two bodies on the authority that are primarily concerned with animal welfare. Of the rest, no fewer than four could be said to represent field sports. I regard that neither as a balanced body nor as a move, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, half-way towards a position where we could regard this as a genuinely objective body. The very clear implication is that the organisations which are to draw up the codes will, to a large extent, be the same ones that currently run field sports.

There is nothing in the Bill that requires the authority to commission or recognise any particular code, or requires a recognised organisation to draw up such a code. Indeed, it could be said that there is a disincentive to do so because where there is no code the wider exemption of proposed new Section 2(1)(b) applies to suffering caused to a mammal, in the normal and humane conduct of a lawful and customary activity". This exemption presupposes that because a time-honoured tradition has previously caused suffering, that suffering is therefore acceptable.

That exemption is subject to the proviso in new Section 2(2)(a) that the exception does not apply, where the suffering caused by [an] act should reasonably have been avoided or substantially alleviated in the course of [the] conduct of that activity". I note that this proviso was applied to both exceptions in the previous Bill. But while some improvements in this area have been made in this new version of the Bill, in this respect the proviso will now not apply where a code is in force. That cannot be right. The issue can perhaps be dealt with by amendments in Committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, said that the Bill would allow comparison of the relative suffering caused by methods of pest control. I believe that he was referring particularly to the fox hunting debate. But there is nothing in the Bill which allows a comparison of suffering caused by different methods of pest control—hunting with dogs as against snaring, for example— because if hunting with dogs was the subject of a recognised code, as might be the implication of this, it could continue even if everyone agreed that it did cause more suffering than other forms of pest control. That cannot be right and it is certainly not acceptable to the Government.

While I can see why my noble friend has brought this Bill before the House once again and why there may be some temptation to say that it will provide a better framework, the central issue is what is undue suffering as against unnecessary suffering and what that implies for the current and currently debated forms of protection of wild mammals. I appreciate that there is a ghost at the feast and that we are, in part, talking about the Hunting Bill, which fell last time. I do not believe that this Bill, even if it could be amended, would be the way to deal with hunting with dogs. I frankly think that my noble friend and those who support the Bill in pursuing it in that context, as distinct from the wider context, are engaging in wishful thinking.

The issue will not be resolved by giving the field sports organisations the ability to draw up codes legitimising their own activities. To be acceptable, any legislation must effectively prevent unnecessary cruelty, and the Bill does not do that.

I am afraid that that is the Government's position. The Bill will no doubt move to subsequent stages, but unless its central dilemma is resolved, while we can make some improvements, I doubt whether the Government would accept the Bill in anything like its current form.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank all who have taken part in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for reminding us of the absence of Lord Hardy, who was a great expert in this area. The last conversation I had with him, in the Library, was on this issue; he strongly encouraged me to go forward with the Bill, which we have done.

The Minister, not surprisingly, has come up with some new reservations on the Bill which, presumably, the Government had not thought of on the previous several occasions, since the distinction between "undue" and "unnecessary" has been there from the beginning. That has been the subject of very intensive and distinguished legal consideration. I will go into that more next time.

On the balance of the authority, the Minister will see that the Bill contains a provision to appoint two more members, and those two members could be such as to produce a different balance if that was desirable. I did not fully understand his last point, because it is not just for the sports to write their codes and then continue accordingly, or as before. It is for the authority to scrutinise those codes and accept them or not accept them and then pass them, with recommendations., to the Minister for him to accept or not accept. So I think his last point, as I heard it, is simply a misunderstanding of what is in the Bill.

I shall not detain the House longer. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.