Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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.