Alun Michael's statement to the House of Commons on Hunting Bill 

 3rd December 2002

Mr Speaker, it is an honour and a privilege to outline to this House my proposals for legislation to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue of hunting with dogs.

The context

Few people would regard this as the most important issue for Parliament and Government to resolve – but it is a serious issue on which many members of this House and members of the public have very strong and polarised views. That is why we must return to this matter again.

The last time Parliament considered a Bill on hunting with dogs, no agreement was reached between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. That is why our manifesto promised to “enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue of hunting with dogs”.

And that is why the Prime Minister gave me the job of fulfilling our manifesto promise by designing legislation to command support in Parliament and to make good law – legislation that will stand the test of time.

The Process

At the request of the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the Countryside Alliance I took the conclusions of the Burns Inquiry as my starting point. His terms of reference required Lord Burns to look at all aspects of hunting with dogs and the authority of his report is acknowledged on all sides.

The key issues emerging from the Burns Report were cruelty and utility. Those two principles have run like a golden thread through the consultation process.

Everything has been tested against those principles:

  • Are we preventing cruelty?
  • Are we recognising what farmers and others need to do to eradicate vermin or to protect their livestock, crops or the bio-diversity of an area?

My bill is based on the answers to those two questions.

After my statement in March, I started a wide-ranging consultation process involving all interested parties, members of Parliament and the public. Initially the response generated more heat than light – some 7,000 people wrote asking me to leave everything unchanged. This matched some 7,000 who asked me to “just ban everything”.

But others wrote detailed contributions, based on evidence and their personal experience.

In May I asked for detailed evidence to be submitted against a set of questions and criteria – based on looking at the issues of cruelty and utility and other questions raised by the evidence I had received by that time.

And the amount of serious engagement increased greatly.

In September I chaired a series of public hearings in Portcullis House. The three main campaigning groups participated in full. Together, we heard expert witnesses from all sides of the argument who debated the merit of applying the principles of cruelty and utility to the activity of hunting mammals with dogs.

I want to pay tribute to the leaders of those groups – The Countryside Alliance, the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the Middle Way Group - who fully engaged in a mature and intelligent manner about an issue on which each of them felt passionately and deeply.

During the consultation both sides have welcomed and praised a process that has been fair, open and transparent.

The two principles of cruelty and utility, Mr Speaker, provide the golden thread which runs from the start to the finish of the process and through the drafting of the Bill. This golden thread is strengthened by the integrity of the process, the basis of principle and the strong focus on evidence that has led me to conclusions that I hope will command the support of this House.

The conclusions

I will publish a Bill this afternoon but in advance of that let me take this opportunity to outline the reasoning behind my conclusions.

Mr Speaker, there has been support from all the organisations involved for the idea of drafting legislation on the basis of evidence and the two principles of cruelty and utility. That in itself is very significant.

On a number of occasions, John Jackson, Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, said that “If something is cruel, we shouldn’t be doing it”. And animal welfare organisations have acknowledged “utility” – things that need to be done for such purposes as eradicating vermin or to protect livestock. Indeed they included a list of exemptions in the Deadline 2000 option that we debated in the last Parliament.

The Middle Way Group has also acknowledged the validity of these two principles.

The proposals

So the legislation is designed to recognise utility and prevent cruelty. Let me briefly spell out what that means

  • The utility test involves asking what is necessary to prevent serious damage to livestock, crops and other property or biological diversity.

  • The cruelty test involves asking which effective methods of achieving that purpose cause the least suffering.

  • All activities will be judged on the evidence available as to whether they meet both these tests.

  • Where an activity has no utility and involves cruelty, it will not be allowed to continue. Incontrovertible evidence shows that the activities of hare coursing and deer hunting cannot meet the two tests so these activities will be banned.

  • Where an activity with dogs has general utility and there is no generally less cruel method, it will be allowed. Again incontrovertible evidence has shown that the activities of ratting and rabbiting should be allowed to continue and that will be dealt with in the Bill.

  • For some activities the evidence is less clear cut. For these activities I propose to set up an independent process to consider on a case-by-case basis whether particular activities involving dogs meet the two tests. That is consistent with the Burns findings.

  • The procedure will require an application to an independent Registrar showing why there is a need to undertake the proposed activity and to show that the cruelty test is satisfied. The procedure will then allow a prescribed animal welfare organisation to provide evidence as well.

  • If the Registrar is satisfied that both tests are met, he will grant registration. If not, he will refuse.

  • In considering applications the Registrar will also have to consider whether the applicant will be able to comply with standard conditions, such as requiring hunted animals to be killed quickly and humanely when caught. Applicants may also specify conditions to which their hunting will be subject.

  • If either side wishes to appeal against the decision they can do so to an independent Tribunal.

  • The tribunal will be a national body with a President at its head appointed by the Lord Chancellor. A panel will have a legally qualified chair, normally sitting with two other members – one with land management experience and the other with animal welfare experience.

  • This is similar to the fair and effective way in which housing law and employment law have been dealt with at a high standard over many years. Let me stress that we will NOT be establishing local tribunals.

  • At every stage there will be balance, fairness, clear principles, transparency and an emphasis on evidence within a process that is based on clear tests and which enables hunters and those concerned with animal welfare to present their evidence.

The onus is now on the people who want to undertake any activity to show that they can meet the tests of utility and cruelty.

They might find ways of changing their activity to meet the two tests. That will be a matter for them, and I am not going to prejudge the Independent Registrar. What is clear is that if they cannot meet the tests then the activity cannot continue.

Mr Speaker, It is simple – if the activity can’t meet the tests then the activity won’t happen.

If it can – it will.

A number of commentators have tried to suggest that there is an intention of going beyond the issue of hunting with dogs to other country sports. I want to make it clear that there is no such intention. It is spelt out in our manifesto commitment: “we have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting”.

I am also convinced by the evidence that there is no need to control falconry within the provisions of my Bill. In falconry, dogs are used to flush out quarry so for the avoidance of doubt the Bill will specify such activities as exempted activities.

It may be argued, Mr Speaker, that the two principles of utility and cruelty on which I am basing my proposals do not go wide enough. The social and economic contribution of hunting will be mentioned, or the argument that ancient freedoms should not be interfered with. These are serious points. I don’t take them lightly. But the key point is that nobody has a right - nor should have a right - to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. Of course we want to keep to a minimum the constraints on people’s behaviour and activity, but to ask for the liberty to be cruel would be absurd. Parliament has the right to set limits and has done so in the past. That is what this Bill does.

The Bill seeks to prevent cruelty associated with hunting with dogs. Even if you are registered, that does not allow you to undertake activities in such a way as to cause avoidable or unnecessary suffering. You are registered to hunt certain species with dogs in a specific area. You do not have licence to be cruel.

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, let us not forget that we have to address this issue and bring it to a sensible resolution in a way that will stand the test of time rather than being a quick fix or a temporary solution that cannot be implemented.

My conclusions are based on evidence and principle, not prejudice on either side of the argument.

I hope that Members on all sides will see the merit of these proposals.

They are fair, they are reasonable, they balance principle and evidence. And they can be enforced.

Most people want to see cruelty prevented. They also want farmers, gamekeepers and others who have to manage the land to be able to do so.

There is no magic wand. There is no quick win.

The basis of principle and evidence provides a golden thread that runs through the whole process and provides authority for the proposals themselves.

I believe these proposals will stand the test of time and are right.

Mr Speaker, I commend these proposals to the House.