Stop Forestry England granting licenses for Fox & Hare hunts

For the most recent hunting season, Forestry England gave hunting licences for 34 fox & hare “trail hunts”. Despite hunting wild mammals with dogs being illegal, two of the licensed/previously licensed trail hunts have been associated with convictions under the Hunting and Animal Welfare Acts.

This petition closed on 6 Apr 2021 with 104,705 signatures


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Other licensed fox hunts have recently been in the press for alleged trespass, killing foxes, losing control of their dogs & for another criminal conviction. A saboteur was severely injured at a hunt in early September that ordinarily receives a licence from Forestry England.

It is only a matter of time before more convictions and more bans will have to be implemented. The answer is simple and effective – stop granting licences to hunts that are continuing to use the myth of ‘trail hunting’ to chase and kill wildlife.


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Debate - Monday 25th April 2022

Hunting

Monday 25th April 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
[David Mundell in the Chair]
16:30
David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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I have been made aware that there are active appeal proceedings relating the subject of one of the e-petitions that will be debated, relating to convictions for being in charge of a dog dangerously out of control. Brief factual references to the existence of those proceedings are permissible in the debate, but Members should be mindful of the sub judice resolution and matters that are still before the courts.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 552017 and 584076, relating to hunting.

Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) is unable to attend the debate as planned, so I am moving the motion on behalf of the Petitions Committee to ensure that this important debate can take place. As I am not able to stay for the remainder of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has kindly agreed to cover some of the areas that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea would have raised in her speech.

18:01
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Thank you, Mr Mundell, for being in the Chair for this important debate. I thank the Petitions Committee and its Chair for ensuring that this matter can be debated in the Chamber. I also thank the hundreds of my constituents in York Central who have signed the petitions before us. They are exceptional at demanding higher protections for animals, not least in respect of foxes savaged by hunts and hare coursing. I have long campaigned to uphold animal welfare standards, and today is no exception. I thank the League Against Cruel Sports and Keep The Ban for their tireless work in exposing this offensive pursuit.

The Hunting Act 2004 should have been the end. Back then, the Labour Government responded to the popular demand to end hunting with hounds. We acted to end this animal cruelty, but the bugles and beagles were not silenced for long. The hunts, of which there were nearly 300 in England and Wales, were not deterred by the penalty system, and it now appears that they were never intended to be. They were soon riding again, under the smokescreen of trail hunting, which was designed to put those investigating the hunts off their scent. The hunts never intended to stop; they said as much when the legislation passed.

The saboteurs and organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports and Keep The Ban have exposed how terriermen were present at 78% of hunts. Those are the people who dig out foxes as they seek refuge. If the fox is not going to be killed, there is no need to dig it out. In 2020, evidence came to light from the leaked Hunting Office report and Masters of Foxhounds Association report of online Zoom webinars, exposing how hunts were making meticulous plans to use the 2004 Act to deflect from this bloodthirsty obsession.

I am glad that some landowners have responded, and I call on all landowners to institute a ban on their land. There has been only one prosecution for permitting a hunt on land that was known to be in breach of the law. While there are temporary suspensions, such as those by Forestry England and the National Trust, they must become bans. The Ministry of Defence has still issued licences. I call on the Minister to ensure that the Government come to one position on this issue. She must ensure that there is a consistent ban on any public land being used for hunts. I hope she will commit to that today in her response.

The 2004 Act has resulted in 448 prosecutions and 228 convictions for crimes involving hunting with dogs, and 47 prosecutions and 16 convictions for hare coursing. However, without a complete ban on hunting, foxes and hares will be targeted. Although Mr Hankinson, a director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was convicted last October after being found guilty of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on foxhunting, the deterrents are insufficient and the law continues to be broken. I also understand that on 6 July Mr Hankinson will be appealing the decision against him.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is my co-conspirator on bringing Great British Railways to York for its headquarters. Does she agree that it is possible—perfectly possible—and reasonable to hunt within the law, using trail hunting, and that therefore, although we condemn a situation in which the law has been broken, it is possible to carry out this activity within the law and indeed the legislation allows for that?

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing that point forward. I would have said yes in 2004, but trust has been betrayed, which is an issue I will come on to later. Therefore, I would have to say today that the answer is no.

I was speaking about the judgment regarding Mr Hankinson. I appreciate that this matter could be sub judice, but I just want to draw Members’ attention today to what Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram said when he was outlining his conclusions in the initial court case last autumn:

“I am sure that the defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt with dogs. In my judgement he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for illegal hunting.”

For that, Mr Hankinson received a fine of £1,000, along with having to make a contribution of £2,500 in legal costs.

As we have seen in other areas of law, penalties for breaches are insufficient for those who are part of the elite. During the cub-hunting autumn season alone, there were 115 reported incidents and 2019-20 saw a total of 485 reports of incidents. These incidents are not rare; they are occurring on an industrial scale.

The Countryside Alliance blames bad law, but the reality is that whether we like the law or not and whether it is good or bad, we have to have to obey it. That message is resounding in the public square at present. Lawbreakers cannot hide behind excuses but must face a penalty, although it is evident that the penalty is too soft, as they continuously and deliberately break the law, for all the weaknesses that may be within it.

Hunts have betrayed the trust placed in them to stay within the spirit and letter of the law and stay away from foxes, so the law must change and a complete ban on trail hunting must ensue. There must be no exemptions, no loopholes and no excuses. The hunts have only themselves to blame for this, having tried to bend and stretch the law.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
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The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way again. Does she agree that if she had her way, then—given that foxhounds do not make good family pets—thousands of foxhounds up and down the country would have to be destroyed humanely, because the hunts could not afford to keep them if they did not have their participation in the trail hunting?

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - Excerpts

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying and, as I said previously, we are in this situation because trust has been betrayed. I do not accept that those hounds have to be put down. However, we have to move forward. We are now at the point where people have deliberately obfuscated the law and I think the time has come when we cannot tolerate people—quite frankly—laughing at this place, which has really tried to improve the situation and move forward by giving that scope and flexibility for trail hunting. However, as we see time and again, trail hunting turns into real hunting and therefore I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman.

With 85% of the population believing that all forms of hunting foxes should be illegal, Parliament cannot stand by when the loopholes in the legislation are being exploited to perpetrate wildlife crime. The Hunting Act 2004 needs amending and those who stand in its way must be brought to account. If Natural Resources Wales has introduced a ban on its land, there is no excuse for the Minister. She needs to ensure that she is leading, not waiting for the hunt lobby to craft more reasons for delay, dither and indecision.

However, this is about not just foxes, but hares. The League Against Cruel Sports found that in 2019-20, there were 102 reports of suspected illegal interference with badger setts, animal worrying—an issue that has been debated of late in Parliament—and even pet interference. The second petition before us today concerns Mini the cat, who was literally hounded to death—chased and killed in a quiet residential area. Poor Mini was mauled outside her home, but the penalty under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was just £1,600. After the kill, the hunt tried to hide their cruelty by slinging little Mini over a fence, but they were caught. This very day, John Sampson, the person responsible for the death of Mini, has had his guilty conviction upheld in the courts in Truro. The nation has taken Mini to their hearts, and are demanding Mini’s law—the public and animal safety Bill—as there has to be a simpler course to justice. Sadly, Mini was not a one-off: on average, another Mini is taken by hunts every fortnight.

People are also endangered. Banning hunts from residential and other public areas is necessary, which is why I believe a blanket ban by Government will increase the consistency of protection. Currently, the Dogs Act 1871 is relied on, but proof needs to come to light that the hounds were out of control, which is no easy thing to evidence. As we bring forward legislation, we need to ensure it is easy to apply, and to provide the necessary evidence. We are coming to the end of this parliamentary Session, after which a new one will begin. Banning trail hunting and hunting on public land and in residential areas would show a commitment to animal wellbeing and protect those most majestic of all animals, foxes. A simple and small amendment to the Hunting Act 2004 is all that is required. We stand ready to bring in this ban and end this barbarism once and for all.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

As the hon. Lady set out, the appeal that I referenced at the beginning of this debate has been concluded, and therefore that case is no longer sub judice for the purpose of the debate. I call Sir Bill Wiggin.

18:12
Bill Wiggin Portrait Sir Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con)
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Thank you, Mr Mundell. I say gently to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who I know has a very kind heart, that if she got what she wanted, anywhere between 9,000 and 18,000 hounds would be put down. I hope she will reconsider her thoughts on that basis.

I remember when the Hunting Act 2004 was passed, which banned intentional hunting of mammals with dogs. I was a teller, and I was in the Chamber when Tony Banks decided to amend Alun Michael’s Bill, which would have licensed hunting. Banks wanted a total ban, and the Secretary of State climbed along the Back Benches to where he was sitting, which was right in the middle of the Chamber. On seeing this, Nicholas Soames called on the Speaker to protect the hon. Gentleman. Banks replied that he could look after himself. As a result, he pressed his amendment, and we got the ban on intentional hunting. That was the conclusion of hundreds of hours of debate, amendments and emotion, and we ended up with an Act that the Government promised not to revisit. Despite not hunting myself, I would like the opportunity to repeal that Act. However, I accept that the Government have promised not to touch it in this Parliament.

Trail hunting or drag hunting is where an artificial scent is laid down for hounds to follow. It is usually a rag dipped in scent, often aniseed, and it is an entirely legal alternative to hunting. It is overwhelmingly practised in this way throughout the country. There are, as I think the hon. Member for York Central mentioned, 300 packs of hounds in this country, some of which are in my constituency. With the owner’s permission, they follow a drag or trail over land and feed their hounds on fallen livestock—calves that are born dead or cows that die—which is a tremendous help to farmers, who face bills for the removal of their fallen stock at a time when margins are tight.

The debate encompasses two separate petitions. The first calls on Forestry England to stop granting licences for fox and hare hunts. Over the most recent hunting season, it is reported that Forestry England granted 34 licences for trail hunts. The tsunami of lawbreaking that the petition suggests does not appear to have taken place. The petition states:

“Despite hunting wild mammals with dogs being illegal, two of the licensed/previously licensed trail hunts have been associated with convictions under the Hunting and Animal Welfare Acts.”

Being “associated with” seems a bit thin. However, there is another issue with that assertion: no fox and hare hunts are licensed by Forestry England. The only hunting that is licensed is trail hunting. Furthermore, no licensed hunt has ever been convicted of a Hunting Act offence while operating on Forestry England’s land. The premise of the petition is therefore misleading. Good people have been encouraged to sign something that is deliberately designed to mislead them.

The petition harks back to the awful, bigoted, hate-filled nature of the debate on hunting, which always comes back to class war. It may be triggered by people feeling that they are being looked down on by people sitting on horses—I do not know. It is constantly fed with inflammatory stories that are designed to upset kind-hearted, generous animal owners so that they fund nasty and sinister groups.

Forestry England is a public body with the freedom to decide what activity takes place on its land. It can rightly suspend or stop events if illegal activity takes place, meaning that decisions are left in the hands of those who can decide the correct course of action on a case-by-case basis, instead of political activists. Once again, we see pressure being brought to bear or bullying. In reality, it is just another attack on rural people.

The second petition relates to Mini’s law. This is a very sad case. Last year, a domestic cat named Mini was killed by dogs in a residential area. Even the most malicious campaigner is not claiming that that was deliberate. It was an accident—deeply regrettable, but an accident. The petition states that such an incident is reported once every two weeks, as the hon. Member for York Central mentioned. However, the anti-hunting group Keep The Ban, which is endorsed by the League Against Cruel Sports, suggests that in 2019, there were actually 29 incidents—not one every two weeks. Once again, good people are being misled in order to feed prejudices and anger, which is bad for everyone.

Happily, there are 12 million domestic cats in this country. Some 27% of households own one. Cats Matter, a feline campaign group, estimates that, sadly, 230,000 cats are killed each year by car alone, as are hundreds of thousands of foxes—not to mention the cats killed each year by dogs. On the premise of the petition, should we also ban cars and dogs? Of course not. There must be balance when addressing this emotive topic but, sadly, that is rarely the case.

The lobby groups and saboteurs that feed off the subject would have people believe that every hunt and every pack of hounds are lawbreakers. That is wrong. As with any lawful activity, it is possible to break the law. Offences that do take place are prosecuted accordingly. The possibility of lawbreaking is not used as a reason to prohibit other lawful activities. Therefore petitions such as these need to be rejected.

Each year, thousands of people attend Boxing day meets such as the one in Ledbury. It is a tradition that has been going on longer than records show. However, last Christmas, the local town council came under pressure to try to ban the meeting in the centre of town. Thankfully, a vociferous majority came out in defence of the meet.

Hunting is about liberty and livelihood for rural people. It is a chance to meet and enjoy traditions passed down through generations. The class warriors are out of date. They choose to mislead and spin. What better proof is there that they are wrong? We must continue to support the rule of law and not be bullied by those who find the truth inconvenient.

18:20
Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who is no longer in her place, and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for opening the debate and raising some important points. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) made some interesting points. It is good that we keep talking as communication is really important in understanding where everyone is coming from.

We are here today because e-petition 552017 received more than 104,000 signatures from local people across the UK, and e-petition 584076 received more than 101,000. That is a lot of people committed to animal welfare, doing the right thing and maintaining and enhancing the protections in law for cruelty against animals. I do not plan to keep colleagues in the Chamber longer than necessary; I am sure that with votes coming up, nobody else wants to stay too long either. However, I want to ensure that a couple of points are on the record.

Members will know that e-petition 552017 asks Her Majesty’s Government to stop Forestry England issuing licences for trail hunting. Forestry England is a public body and in 2019-20 it issued 34 licences for trail hunting. Since 2020, licences have been suspended pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. E-petition 584076 seeks greater protection for pets and animals from hunts, following the mauling to death of Mini the cat. That mauling involved huntsman John Sampson, who was found guilty in December. The petition follows a campaign involving the likes of Action Against Foxhunting and I pay tribute to the campaigners for their tenacity, care and compassion.

Colleagues will know that despite the Hunting Act 2004, foxhunting has continued in England and Wales under the guise of trail hunting. That fact was recently exposed by the conviction of Mark Hankinson, now a former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, for intentionally encouraging or assisting others to break the Hunting Act 2004, in the case of R v. Hankinson. Despite its exposure as a cover for illegal hunting, the Ministry of Defence still licenses trail hunting on its own land, with at least 259 days of hunting licensed during the 2021-22 hunting season. We all know that those hunts regularly cause havoc in the countryside, terrorising wild animals, pets—as we have already heard—and people as well as disrupting infrastructure such as railway lines and major roads.

The simple fact is that hunting with dogs has continued despite the ban, with weaknesses in the Hunting Act 2004 abused by those claiming to conduct trail hunting or exempt hunting. The Hunting Act was one of Labour’s greatest achievements, and we will continue to stand by it every day. Indeed, we went on to live those values by attempting to improve and amend the Agriculture Bill, but we were not able to persuade Conservative Members to vote with us. Enough is enough. The Hunting Act 2004 must be strengthened and trail hunting must be banned on Government and all publicly owned or managed land. For many years now, Labour, through successive shadow Environment Secretaries, and animal welfare campaigners, such as the League Against Cruel Sports, have said that trailing is a smokescreen designed to disguise the hunt’s true activity. We need to call that out.

I am grateful to the league for its work, and its helpful briefing ahead of the debate. It made clear that during the last full hunting season for which data is available, it received 485 reports of suspected illegal hunting relating to 110 different hunts in England, Scotland and Wales. In addition, during the 2021 cub hunting season, which is euphemistically described as the autumn hunting, the league received 115 reports of suspected illegal cub hunting. The league acknowledges, as I do, that those figures are reliant on eyewitness reports, so we can fairly assume that they are just the tip of the iceberg. Like many in the Opposition, I am concerned by the lack of transparency and how rules that apply to all are being played by a few as they seek to work their way around the law.

We need action and we need this Government to stand up and be counted. We need to stop public land being used by those seeking to play around with the rules. Despite the exposure of trail hunting as a smokescreen for illegal hunting, the Government have continued to allow and license trail hunting on Government land—particularly land owned by the Ministry of Defence. In a written question about the impact of trail hunting on MOD land, the Defence Secretary went as far as to defend trail hunting as a legal activity. Trail hunting is currently suspended on Forestry England land, which is one thing, but that is not enough. Forestry England, as the Minister knows, is a public body that reports to her Department. It is England’s largest land manager and looks after 1,500 of the nation’s woods and forests.

Since news of the Hunting Office’s leaked webinar emerged in 2020, Forestry England has suspended trail hunting licences but has yet to ban trail hunting permanently. What discussions has the Minister had with the leadership at Forestry England about the issue? I pay tribute to the National Trust, Natural Resources Wales, the Malvern Hills Trust, and Cheshire West and Chester Council, which are among those that have seen through the hunt’s smokescreen and have permanently banned it from their land. Could the Minister, if possible, touch on what discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on the matter?

In the 17 years since the Hunting Act 2004 came into force under a progressive Labour Government, many in the hunting community have been determined to circumvent the Act, and since 2010 they have largely succeeded. Trail hunting was invented in 2005 as a means of exploiting loopholes and enforcement challenges. Recent criminal proceedings have demonstrated how trail hunting has been used as a cover for illegal hunting. However, the Government have repeatedly talked down the prospect of addressing the gap in legislation. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report in August 2021 recommended that the UK Government review the Hunting Act and its exemptions to improve the ability of police to enforce the Act. Her Majesty’s Government have yet to respond to that recommendation, so can the Minister let me know when she will launch the review? I would be happy jointly with the Minister to sponsor a booking in Portcullis House for a launch, which would be great. Some cross-party consensus would be a fantastic thing.

A 2021 green paper from Act Now For Animals, a coalition of 50 animal welfare charities, recommended that the Government end trail hunting on their land and strengthen the Hunting Act 2004. It recommended removing exemptions in section 1 that are being exploited and introducing the possibility of custodial sentences for breaches of the Act. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, hon. Members who have spoken and those who signed the two petitions. Labour will continue pushing for strong observance of the law and proper and effective animal welfare policies, and will keep holding this Government to account.

16:59
Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Mundell, and I want to thank hon. Friends and Members. There is only a small crowd in the Chamber, but we have had some quite feisty views and some friendly but opposing views. I thank those involved from the Petitions Committee as well.

Today’s debate relates to two petitions that have been signed by enough people to secure a debate. The issue is obviously an important one for us to discuss. I will start with the Hunting Act 2004. The Act makes it an offence to hunt a wild animal with dogs, except when it is carried out in accordance with the exemptions in the Act, and it completely bans hare coursing. Hare coursing has been mentioned a few times, but all hon. Members will know that we are also making a sensible and well-supported amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will genuinely help as regards any hare coursing. That is a positive step—I digress slightly, but it is important to note that.

The penalty for illegal hunting is an unlimited fine, and the Government take all wildlife crime extremely seriously. Enforcement of the Hunting Act is an operational matter for the police. Between 2005 and 2019, 887 individuals were prosecuted under the Act, of whom 514 individuals were found guilty, so, in its present form, the Act is fit for purpose and is being enforced. As we have heard, this Government made a manifesto commitment that they would make no changes to the Hunting Act in this Parliament. Trail hunting is a legal recreational activity following a pre-laid trail, and we heard a good description from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) about how it operates. It should not involve pursuing live quarry—[Interruption.]

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. I interrupt the Minister because there is a vote in the main Chamber. I will suspend proceedings for up to 15 minutes. If hon. Members are back earlier than that, we will recommence earlier.

18:30
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
18:49
On resuming
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - Excerpts

I will pick up where I left off, rather than going right back to the beginning of my speech. I had just got on to what trail hunting is and was explaining that it is a legal recreational activity, following a pre-laid trail. As it should not involve pursuing live quarry, it is not specifically covered by the Hunting Act.

We recognise that it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may occasionally pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the hunt staff to control their hounds—and, if necessary, stop the hounds—as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. I think it was clearly stated by Members on both sides of the Chamber that there are over 300 hunts in this country, and many of them are involved in the completely legal recreational activity of trail hunting.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I just wonder if she could explain why, if there is not an intention to bait a fox in trail hunting, as she said, there are terriermen who join those hunts and use their tools to dig out foxes?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I will just reiterate what I said: there are parameters for what trail hunting is; it is a legal recreational activity, and it must be carried out in the right way. The data that we have received suggests that it is being carried out in the right way; where it is not, it obviously needs to be cracked down on. That is not the Government’s job; it is the job of the police.

Issuing a licence or giving permission for trail hunting is an operational matter for the landowner; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not play a role. Although it is called licensing, it is really an arrangement with the landowner and the hunt; the landowner comes to their own arrangement as to whether they want the hunt to proceed over their land. Different public sector landowners take different approaches to managing their land. That said, of course, other DEFRA Ministers and I continue to engage with interested parties through meetings and correspondence, and we obviously listen to everybody’s views and discuss matters of concern.

The first petition mentioned today relates to the Forestry Commission in England. Trail hunting in the nation’s forests was suspended by Forestry England following a police investigation leading to the conviction of a former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association. It remains suspended until the Forestry England board takes a decision on its future, which is for that board to do.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
- Hansard - Excerpts

Does the Minister agree that it is rather ironic that the Labour party campaigned against the privatisation of the Forestry Commission because it wanted public access to its land, and now it is saying that people should not have access to that land to carry out a perfectly legal activity?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment. As ever, he is on the ball with his comments, as he was on the point about the 18,000 hounds that might have to be put down if the activity of hunting did not proceed.

I also want to touch on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire, who spoke as a true countryman with a great deal of experience and knowledge. I think he said that he does not himself hunt—nor do I—but the expertise he brings to the table and his knowledge of rural affairs are very important when we are talking about these issues. I just wanted to put that on the record.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - Excerpts

In my contribution, I posed the question of why Forestry England has imposed this temporary ban but the MOD has not. There appears to be inconsistency across the public estate as to whether hunts have access, and I wondered whether the Minister could clear up that matter.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - Excerpts

I do not think it is a matter of me clearing it up. It is within the gift of these organisations to decide whether or not they want to come to arrangements with hunts, and Forestry England has obviously suspended this activity—as have a number of other organisations, such as the National Trust and the Malvern Hills Trust—and will be looking into it. Quite a range of people have decided to take that action.

I will now turn to the second petition we are considering today, which relates to the distressing incident in Cornwall concerning Mini, a rescue cat of 14 years. I am an owner of two cats, and I do not know how I would survive without them, so I can understand how awfully upsetting and emotional this incident was.

The Government are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, and clearly many people in this country support the direction we are taking on animal welfare. We published our action plan for animal welfare in May 2021, which lays out the breadth of animal and conservation reforms—both legislative and non-legislative —that the Government are taking forward to ensure high standards of welfare for all animals, whether farm animals, pets or wild animals.

The passing of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 delivered on the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce tougher penalties for animal cruelty. The Act’s new maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine will apply to animal cruelty offences, including causing unnecessary suffering, and is a significant step forward in improving animal welfare. The Act has received overwhelming support. Indeed, I worked on these issues as a Back Bencher, and many Members present have been working on them for many years, so I am really proud that they have now come through in our manifesto commitment and in legislation.

I fully understand the upset and anger felt by Mini’s owners at this awful incident. I understand that the hounds involved in the incident were being exercised—we have hounds going through our village regularly on exactly the same kind of outing, to give them exercise—and were not hunting at the time. There are already several pieces of legislation that can be used to prevent such incidents and to protect the public and companion animals from dogs. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 makes it an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control in any place; there is the possibility of unlimited fines, or even imprisonment, for offences under that Act. In addition, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 includes community protection notices to enable the police and local authorities to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. Local authorities also have powers to make public space protection orders under the 2014 Act to exclude dogs from certain areas or insist that they are kept on leads.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - Excerpts

I want to draw attention to today’s ruling, because it is a landmark one: I understand that this is the first time a conviction has happened under the Dangerous Dogs Act where a dog has attacked another animal. Does the Minister agree that it is important for the breadth of the Act to be brought into full force when such instances as the taking of Mini’s little life occur?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Yes, today—we are allowed to speak about it now, Mr Mundell, are we not?—the appeal was refused. Judge Simon Carr said:

“It is a fact specific decision we are quite sure these dogs were dangerously out of control and in these circumstances the appeal against conviction is refused.”

That is very strong, as the hon. Lady said, and rightly so. I believe that the legislation has been used in the right way.

One other question was asked by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), which I think was about the potential review. In 2018, DEFRA was looking at the Hunting Act, but that was shelved. We now have a manifesto commitment not to amend the Act, which she is well aware of. We will not change our mind about that. A powerful statement about that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
- Hansard - Excerpts

No one has mentioned in the debate the important economic impact that legal hunting has in rural communities. The farriers, the horse breeders, the people who service the horse boxes—a whole variety of people—rely on legal hunting for their incomes and livelihoods. If we were to ban trail hunting more widely, people would be put out of work as a direct result.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. We should not forget it. I used to be an environment correspondent down in the west country, and I was there during the full throes of all the debates about hunting. I did not know that much about the economic impacts when I started, but I certainly learned a great deal, particularly in places such as Exmoor, where there are not many other places to gain income. There is tourism, of course, but hunting has a big impact on tourism, with people having their horses in stabling, and all the catering, accommodation and everything else it brings. That is a valid point. It has to be operated. Legally, we have put in requirements for the safe operation of trail hunting and so forth. Carried out in the right way, hunting is still valuable to the rural economy. Similarly, a good point was made about the fact that the fallen stock from agriculture goes to the hounds. If that were not so, that would create a problem. There are so many possible knock-on effects.

I realise that there are strong views on every side— I thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members for their input, and I thank those who signed the petition—but there is a clear consensus that the ban on hunting with dogs must remain, and this Government have committed to not amending the Hunting Act. Forestry England has responded to breaches of its trail hunting permissions and, as I said, all trail hunting on its land is currently suspended. It is very much an operational matter for Forestry England to decide how it wants to proceed. It will do so shortly, at one of its meetings.

As I hope I have demonstrated, protection for members of the public and their companion animals is already covered by several appropriate pieces of legislation, including on dangerous dogs. Another interesting point was made: as I said, I have two cats and we have hounds exercising through our village, but one of my previous cats was killed by a car. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire raised the issue of the other awful incidents that can wipe out some of our pets.

I hope that I have made it clear that we have appropriate legislation to cover incidents in which dogs act dangerously. Those found guilty under such Acts are subject to the full force of the law, and rightly so.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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As the Member who moved the motion cannot be present, that will conclude the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 552017 and 584076, relating to hunting.

19:04
Sitting adjourned.

Government Response

Monday 7th December 2020

Trail hunting is a legal activity. Forestry England permits trail hunting under an agreement with the Masters of Fox Hounds Association. It has the power to suspend or withdraw any permission.


The Government responded to a petition on this issue on 10 September 2020 and the position remains the same. The full response can be found at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/300634

Trail hunting in the nation's forests is currently suspended in response to confirmation that the police are investigating webinars hosted by the Hunting Office.

Forestry England has no plans to end the granting of permission for trail hunting where the hunts concerned can meet the terms and conditions of the permission which are themselves kept under regular review.

The Government will not amend the Hunting Act 2004.


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