§ Order for Second Reading read.9.34 am
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the Order Paper for today there are two Bills relating to badgers—the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) and another Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). I trust that, when hon. Members discuss the measure immediately before us, the Chair will permit straying into the other Bill, because comparisons between the two Bills will obviously be the key to what is said.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman knows that we must deal with the Bill before us. It is not for me to pontificate on what Members may or may not say, but they must stick to what is in the Bill. I understand that the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), whose Bill appears lower down the Order Paper today, may also want to participate in this debate, but I have no idea what he will say.
§ Mr. Colvin
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
On a second point of order, may I say that the Bill that we are about to debate could have been called the Badgers (Amendment) Bill, because to a great extent it amends the Badgers Act 1973. However, I have just been to the Vote Office and I am afraid that that Act is not available. That may be due to my laziness; I should have ordered it last week so that it could have been brought from the store. However, the same problem confronted us during debates in the last Session on the Protection of Badger Setts Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks)—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. That is all as may be, but today we are dealing with the Badgers Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes).
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) seriously wants to look at the Badgers Act 1973, for which I was responsible, may I point out that there are copies of it in the Lobbies.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is my pleasure and privilege to move the Second Reading of the Badgers Bill. Its sponsors are colleagues from the three principal political parties, and Plaid Cymru has also promised me its wholehearted support.
There is one sad mistake in the list of the Bill's sponsors. I refer to my late hon. Friend and colleague, Mr. Donald Coleman. The Bill had gone to the printers before he so tragically passed away. A bit of secret history is that Donald Coleman would dearly have loved to have introduced a measure similar to my Bill. He was pleased when I invited him to be a sponsor and I am sure that he is with us in spirit today supporting this measure.
When I was telephoned and told that I was fifth on the list for private Member's Bills, my immediate response was to say that I wanted to introduce a Bill to protect badgers, first, because I have an affection for these lovely creatures and, secondly, I was concerned about the way in which a most reasonable Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) had been talked out.
Following my decision, I pay tribute to the organisations that have lent me their support, expertise and invaluable assistance. I refer to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, the National Federation of Badger Groups and the World Wide Fund for Nature, led by his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. I also thank the caring people all over Britain who have sent me letters of support, sometimes accompanied by petitions in favour of the Bill. I hope and trust that they will not be disappointed.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the organisations that have helped him to prepare the Bill. I assume that he consulted them closely. He will recall that last year my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), as a Back-Bench Member, put through the House the Rights of Way Act 1990 which brought together the most amazing collection of environmental, farming and landowning groups. It was a remarkable success for which my hon. Friend has been rightly rewarded by a place in the Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not aspire to such a reward. Can he tell the House what other groups he consulted, and will he address the genuine concerns expressed by the National Farmers Union about the difficulties some of his proposals might cause for farmers?
§ Mr. Hughes
I consulted and spent a good deal of time with a whole host of organisations before presenting the Bill. I can give the hon. Gentleman that clear and specific assurance.
The badger has been protected by law since 1973, but despite strengthening amendments to the Badgers Act 1973 in 1981 and 1985, the cruel persecution of badgers persists. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) steered a private Member's Bill through Parliament in 1985 to make it more difficult for diggers to escape conviction. He recently conducted a survey of police authorities to find out whether the 1985 amendment has been effective and he discovered that, although initially the conviction rate rose dramatically, it has since dropped 1107 to a mere 55 per cent. That is a lower rate of conviction than that achieved before the 1985 attempt by Parliament to solve the problem. Badger diggers now know that if they are caught attacking a badger sett they have a 50:50 chance of getting off.
The National Federation of Badger Groups, which represents about 70 voluntary badger protection groups, produced a report about a year ago which showed that badger setts have been attacked with various degrees of severity by terrier men and badger diggers, as well as by a small minority of farmers and some unscrupulous developers. Such people take advantage of the fact that, despite legal protection for the badger, the animal's home, its sett, is not protected.
Early in 1989 a national survey of badger setts conducted by Dr. Stephen Harris for the Nature Conservancy Council supported the claim by the League Against Cruel Sports that up to 10,000 badgers are killed annually by badger diggers. I am sure that hon. Members will realise that when a sett is flattened by a JCB or flooded with slurry it is virtually impossible to obtain prosecution evidence of the injury or death of badgers because the evidence may be deep in an impenetrable tomb. Only last year a farmer was acquitted on appeal because of the absence of physical proof that badgers were present in the sett when it was flooded with slurry. In their eagerness to prevent foxes from using a badger sett to escape from the hounds, some fox hunts use methods of blocking far outside the code of practice of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and that causes severe problems to the resident badgers.
§ Mr. Colvin
Will the hon. Gentleman therefore acknowledge that the proper earth stopping of badger setts in no way harms the badger if it is carried out in accordance with the code of practice of the Masters of Foxhounds Association? Why did he not provide for that in his Bill?
§ Mr. Hughes
I hope that, with the co-operation of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, we can accommodate that point in Committee.
My Bill seeks to block the loopholes in existing legislation by protecting the badger sett, the badger's home. Any reasonable person looking at what is happening would feel that such a measure was vital.
§ Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)
My hon. Friend has been asked why he did not put in the Bill the concession that he has offered. It is as well to explore that issue for a moment because it would be helpful for my hon. Friend to tell the House that he is under pressure not only from fox hunters but from people who want to see 100 per cent. protection for badger setts. If my hon. Friend makes the concession to fox hunters that he has intimidated, he will encounter some resistance from those of us who do not want such a concession to be made. However, if he agrees to make it we shall agree to it. I hope that Conservative Members will accept in good faith what my hon. Friend said. The matter has to be dealt with in Committee. My hon. Friend wants to present the Bill as it is to accommodate our feelings, but we acknowledge that there will have to be concessions in Committee.
§ Mr. Hughes
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. I am a reasonable man, and from the outset I have approached this subject in a conciliatory spirit and will continue to do so.
§ Mr. Colvin
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) for his intervention because it goes to the heart of objections to the previous Bill presented by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I wholeheartedly concur with what the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) said about consultation. He has bent over backwards to meet us and to talk about these issues. However, it was clear from the start that this was one of the sticking points.
I cannot accept that provisions to the end that I have suggested could not have been included in the Bill when it was drafted. They were certainly included in the draft Bill which we let the hon. Gentleman see and which encompassed our suggestions in covering notes. I do not accept the argument that it was not possible. Everything is possible and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the essence of getting private Members' Bills through this place is compromise. Half a cake is better than none, and opponents of what is proposed should accept that a half cake is well worth having.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Gentleman seems to expect a 100 per cent. concession. As he knows, there are two sides to this argument. I have received a great volume of correspondence from people all over the country who feel strongly on this issue.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I have a different point from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). On Report I tabled two amendments to the last Bill to deal with the problems of badger setts in sea walls. I had a bad case in my constituency where a sea wall broke as a result of badger activity. I have had many representations from farmers about the problems associated with normal agricultural work. I have studied the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) on a similar subject and the wording of it is quite acceptable. The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) did not consult me, but must have known of my interest because I tabled amendments to the last Bill. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside that it is not acceptable to put a Bill before the House and then say, "I shall alter it in due course." The hon. Gentleman is the author of this Bill and he must understand that he will get opposition if he does not take account of these points at this stage.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) has already said that I have consulted widely, so there is a difference between him and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin).
I have here a report in The Independent, dated 26 August 1990, of a court case in mid Wales involving badger baiting. A gang of badger baiters was trapped by an anti-blood sports undercover agent, who made a video film of the cruelty. The report said:The men dig up a set and a terrier is sent down to drive out the first badger. It writhes and flips as four dogs tear into it, pinioning the animal so tightly that it can barely move its head and bite.The excited dogs yap constantly. Their owners stand in a circle like children egging on a playground fight. The men's language complements their behaviour".1109 There follows a series of obscenities which I do not wish to embarrass the House by repeating. The report continues:The badger wiggles backwards and forwards, trying to throw the dogs off. It is an impossible task.The digging out of the second badger begins. As it is forced up, a hunter helps it on its way, throwing it through the air with the dogs hanging off it. The pack is briefly called off and a shotgun is fired twice into the badger. The shots do riot kill it so the dogs renew their attack. 'Fight' is an inappropriate description of the killing. The tormented badger does not have a chance …The third badger is pulled out and puts up the strongest resistance. Five dogs, terriers, tear into it. One of the men stabs the badger, to weaken it, not to kill it. The dogs are pulled off so the badger thinks it can escape. But when it gets a few yards, the dogs are unleashed and swarm over it again.As the struggle drags on, one man … casually walks up to the badger and stabs it six times. It survives, so he slits its throat. It takes a minute or so for the dogs to realise the badger is dead and they carry on jerking the body. The hunters are delighted . . . Badger baiting is a crime, but the laws are not tight and successful prosecutions are rare. Mr. Barrington"—of the League Against Cruel Sports—said that the league was pressing the Home Office to make it an offence to dig up the badger sett.This is what I hope to achieve with my Bill.
There was a sequel to the court case. The five badger baiters were forced to run for their lives after the court hearing. The report said:The cowards fled from court after enraged animal lovers had watched a sickening video.It showed badgers screaming in agony as they were shot, stabbed and baited by terriers.Reading such gruesome details, it is difficult to believe that we living in a civilised society, let alone a Christian one.
Clause 1 proposes to amend the Badgers Act 1973. It provides:( ) If any person shall interfere with a badger sett by doing any of the following things, that is to say,In view of the episodes that I have just read out, I feel that such measures are ever more urgent.
intending to do any of those things or being reckless as to whether his actions will have any of those consequences, he shall be guilty of an offence.
- (a) damaging a badger sett or any part thereof;
- (b) destroying a badger sett;
- (c) obstructing access to or any entrance to a badger sett;
- (d) causing a dog to enter a badger sett; or
- (e) disturbing a badger when it is occupying a badger sett
In addition, the Bill protects farmers. If the National Farmers Union is not satisfied with my wording, I am prepared to look at a more acceptable formula. I have no wish to interfere with the legitimate functions of the farmer.
§ Mr. Colvin
I understand that the hon. Gentleman proposes that farmers be allowed to apply for a licence to interfere with badger setts. Has he thought through the bureaucracy of that? I am a farmer and I know that instant decisions have to be made and one cannot afford to go through a long, tangled bureaucratic process to get a licence to interfere when one is managing a farming operation. Will the hon. Member elucidate the licensing arrangements?
§ Mr. Hughes
I have had discussions with the National Farmers Union and it seems to be adopting a more reasonable approach than that which the hon. Gentleman is adopting.
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
Is it not a bit much for Conservative Members to make these excuses and apologies for not supporting the Bill? Would it not be better if people put their views forward honestly and allowed my hon. Friend to amend the Bill in Committee? At this stage of the game, it is a bit sickening to have apologists for the hunting and shooting set raise pathetic excuses such as the problems of bureaucracy so as to impede the progress of the Bill.
§ Mr. Hughes
I can understand my hon. Friend's feelings. As I said earlier, many people have written to me expressing equally strong feelings.
Clause 4 gives a definition of a badger's sett:any structure or place occupied or used by a badger for shelter or protection.In a letter to me dated 29 January, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who is the chairman of the British Field Sports Society, said that the Bill proposes protection for vacant badger setts, which are often occupied by foxes and rabbits. However, he is not allowing for the fact that badgers often return to a former home and may have vacated the sett only temporarily. Nevertheless, I give him my word that, in Committee, I shall attempt to reach agreement with his organisation. In other words, I shall seek a compromise. I trust that the British Field Sports Society will approach this matter in a conciliatory way. That is the method by which legislation can be enacted to tackle and stamp out this evil practice of badger baiting. My Bill is not a back-door attempt to curb fax hunting.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. I shall revert to farmers' interests because farmers, especially those in the south-west, have land that in some instances is criss-crossed with setts and tunnels, many of which are empty. This has happened because of an increase in the badger population. When the setts and tunnels are empty, they are inhabited by rabbits, which do considerable harm to crops. On occasions, tunnels have collapsed beneath the weight of a tractor or during the disturbance of ploughing, causing injury and damage. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has said that he will consider these matters in Committee.
§ Mr. Hughes
The appropriate provisions are already in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill, he will find the answer to his intervention.
In Northern Ireland, the badger and its sett are protected by law. It is time for the anomaly on the mainland to be corrected. I want all badger setts to be properly protected from the minority who continue to persecute a beautiful and harmless wild animal.
§ 10 am
§ Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)
I share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) about the late Donald Coleman. Secondly, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having been fortunate enough to secure a high place in the ballot. Having also done that, I know that a great deal of work was required. I know that, because over the years I have introduced two private Member's Bills. A great deal of background work has to be done before such Bills can be introduced on the Floor of the House.
At this early stage in my brief remarks I shall say something that may cause surprise and shock. I shall be 1111 supporting the Bill's Second Reading. I know that that will surprise those who wrote to me following my opposition to the detail, not to the principle, of the Protection of Badger Setts Bill, which was introduced last year by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). These writers were clearly convinced that at best I was in favour of badger baiting and torture, which I am not and which I consider entirely repellant in every respect. At worst, they give the impression in many of their letters that for refreshment I had badger for lunch, tea and dinner, varying my diet only occasionally by turning to baby seals or hamsters.
Some of the 2,000-odd letters that I have received were not unreasonable, but many were entirely unreasonable. That is my view, however, and perhaps I am wrong. I shall quote one which I consider to be unreasonable. It reads:I hope all your family die of cancer, you badger-hayting bastard.That letter was wrong in fact. Almost the worst feature about it was that the spelling was not such as to enable the writer to obtain an 0-level in English. Hating was spelt hayting, and perhaps that reflected the ability of the writer to think. The alleged affection of many writers of the letters to which I have referred towards wild animals seemed not to stretch so far as to include affection for homo sapiens. They did not appear to be the caring people to which the hon. Member for Newport, East referred.
I hate to disappoint those who wrote the sort of letter from which I quoted. They believe that I was determined to destroy badgers in one way or another. They must now exercise great intellectual agility to force themselves to believe otherwise.
We could and should have had a badger sett protection Act last year. Such a measure would now be on the statute book if it had not been for the obstinacy of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West and his unpreparedness to meet the legitimate arguments and amendments that were advanced and tabled by a number of hon. Members.
§ Sir Charles Morrison
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but before I do so I tell him that I shall not necessarily reply to his intervention. I say that because I am still waiting for him to answer a letter that I wrote him after his Bill was defeated last year.
§ Mr. Banks
The hon. Gentleman had an unpleasant experience and I share his concern and the concern of the entire House that people write such letters—I have received many similar letters on matters not connected with badgers—but we must not get over-sensitive. Those who write such letters destroy the validity of the case for the protection of badgers. It is as simple as that. For the hon. Gentleman to make great play of the loonies who write to him—there cannot be that many of them—is to undermine any serious points that he wants to make.
It was unfair of the hon. Gentleman, and untrue, to suggest that I was obstinate. Many concessions were made when my Bill was considered in Committee. It was the determination and selfishness of the fox-hunting lobby that caused the Bill to go down. That is the truth and the hon. Gentleman should recognise it.
§ Sir Charles Morrison
That is complete rubbish. I was not a member of the Standing Committee that considered the hon. Gentleman's Bill. I understand, however, that fox hunting was debated in considerable detail during those proceedings. But on Report a number of amendments were tabled, such as the one which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), and were not debated. Time did not permit that, because of the nature of the passage of private Members' legislation. In most instances the amendments were reasonable and would not have undermined the basic intention that lay behind the Bill.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I recall that I was on the mailing list of the League Against Cruel Sports, which published a pamphlet that included a photograph of my hon. Friend, under which there was an extremely abusive personal attack that was based on prejudice, not fact.
§ Sir Charles Morrison
I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Newport, East has decided already to try to meet legitimate concerns. Clause 2(2) states:A person shall not be guilty of an offence … if he shows that his action was unavoidable and was an incidental result of a lawful act.That is helpful. Nevertheless, the subsection will need amending to meet some of the worries that have been expressed by the National Farmers Union. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may have received the same letter that was sent to me by the NFU since his negotiations with it. In that letter the NFU raises what appear to be several legitimate concerns. None the less, the hon. Member for Newport, East has taken a considerable step in the right direction and I am grateful to him for that.
We should be as clear about what the promoter and sponsors of the Bill are not attempting to do as we are about what they are trying to do. There are some, not necessarily in this place but outside it, who are somewhat confused. As we all know, the Bill is not an attempt to protect the badger as a species. I think that the hon. Member for Newport, East will agree with me about that. It is important that that is understood, as many of the letters that I have received are from people who, no doubt genuinely, believe that the species is in danger. It is not, and that is why the Bill is specific.
The concept of protecting the species is covered adequately by the Badgers Act 1973, for which the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) must take a good deal of the credit, together with a late cousin of mine, who introduced the Bill in another place. That legislation can also be credited to some extent for the current state of the badger population. Whether that is increasing or decreasing nationally is not certain. However, every opinion expressed or census taken so far implies that badger numbers have increased over a long period.
I make that claim on the basis of information provided in the Nature Conservancy Council publication, "The Badger in Britain" and I shall base my remarks also on the views expressed to me by one of the scientists who wrote that report. It states that as long ago as 1846, the early extermination of the badger was predicted. It was thought to be practically extinct in England. During the late 19th century, many people expressed a similar sentiment. None the less, by 1905, although badgers were somewhat scarce, they were generally distributed, though they were still 1113 thought to be uncommon or rare in many areas of England, and sparsely distributed in Scotland. They were certainly thought to be rarer than 100 years earlier.
In 1948, Ernest Neal, who has probably studied badgers more than anybody else, expressed the opinion that the badger was well distributed and was numerous in parts of Britain. Even so, within a few years there was a setback because of the use of organo-chlorine insecticides, which may have seriously affected badgers, just as they did other forms of wildlife.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
As the hon. Gentleman said, the badger enjoyed no legal protection prior to 1973. Despite its declining numbers, it was considered a legitimate quarry of many fox hunts, which would include their tally of badgers in their annual reports. Does the hon. Gentleman think in retrospect that that was appropriate behaviour for fox hunters to adopt?
§ Sir Charles Morrison
I do not know whether it was appropriate for fox hunters to do that prior to 1973, but fox hunters abide by the law and the Bill is aimed at trying to close a loophole in current legislation. That 1973 Act can take some of the credit for the current healthy state of the badger population.
In 1973, the hon. Member for Wentworth estimated that there were 40,000 to 50,000 badgers in Britain, which represented a decline of between 10,000 and 20,000 over the previous four years. The hon. Gentleman's figures were based on the Mammal Society's survey, but he expressed the opinion that the population was probably twice as high as that at the beginning of the century. In 1975, the hon. Member for Wentworth, perhaps on the basis of further analysis by the Mammal Society, estimated that the badger population had declined further, to about 35,000.
The latest survey by the Nature Conservancy Council, initiated with the support of the Mammal Society, estimates that there are approximately 250,000 adult badgers, with an annual production of about 105,000 cubs. It is clear that, in general, there has been a steady increase in badger numbers over the past 150 years. None the less, I emphasise that, although there may be population increases or decreases in various parts of the country, it is not certain whether the national figure is increasing or decreasing. The best scientific methods of assessing numbers are now used, but until they are applied more than once, comparative figures cannot be produced. However, it is clear also that there is no immediate need to worry about the status of the badger population—and, anyway, that is not the subject of the Bill.
There is a tendency for many people to assume that badgers are rare, simply because they are not often seen. Sadly, often the only badgers that we see are dead at the side of the road. It is forgotten that they are largely nocturnal animals. It should also be remembered that badgers are bad colonisers. Whereas an area cleared of foxes outside the breeding system will be populated again within a few weeks, an area made bare of badgers may take years, or even decades, to contain them again.
Against the background of a secure badger population, today's Bill or Bills—because that of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Protection of Badgers Bill, has the same objective—are aimed at protecting badger setts specifically. My hon. Friend's Bill seeks to safeguard themagainst acts likely to cause bodily harm to badgers.1114 The NCC survey estimates that Britain's 250,000 badgers live in no fewer than 42,891 social groups, occupying 165,000 setts. Of those, the council estimates that 9,000 setts are dug each year. It is thought probable that most of the observed cases of digging relate to digging for badgers, not foxes.
Scientists have categorised four different types of sett —main, annex, subsidiary and outlying. The number of main setts is equivalent to the number of social groups. The use of setts by foxes is mostly, though certainly not exclusively, of subsidiary and outlying setts. While I agree totally with the objective of protecting badger setts, a definition could exclude the very smallest type, thus reducing the problems that the Bill might otherwise create for farmers, foresters, fox hunters and other country users.
The scientist partly responsible for the NCC report, to whom the hon. Member for Newport, East referred, informs me that it is not necessary, from a conservative standpoint, to protect every sett, and suggests that an appropriate definition would bea structure consisting of three or more entrance holes, and which is currently, or has been, occupied by badgers.I am interested to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster does not think that such a definition, which slightly reduces the scope of the Bill, is necessary, but: I believe that it could meet some of the worries of the National Farmers Union. On the other hand, clause 4 of the Badgers Bill includes a definition, but it is much more comprehensive than my suggestion, which stems precisely from the views expressed by Dr. Stephen Harris. Doubtless we can return to that matter in Committee.
I am struck by the fact that the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, in two major respects, appears to be much tougher than the Bill that we are debating this morning. First, it suggests a sharp increase in penalties for offences under the Badgers Act 1973. I believe that that is an important provision and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Newport, East does not refer to penalties. Secondly, clause 5 provides in principle to allow courts to disqualify those convicted of offences under the 1973 Act from keeping a dog. That is a pretty tough provision. Those two provisions provide an extra and a major deterrent to badger baiters or diggers, and I am sorry that they are not in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Newport, East may be prepared to include them.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the Criminal Justice Bill contains certain new provisions—perhaps the Minister could enlighten us about them—that cover his remarks about penalties?
§ Sir Charles Morrison
In that case, I seek to be enlightened. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that from the Front Bench in due course.
I am also a little disappointed—perhaps I am wrong again—that the hon. Member for Newport, East does not include provision for controlled blocking of badger setts by fox hunters. My scientific advice is that setts could be blocked with loose soil and that such plugs could be left for badgers to remove. Alternatively, provision could be made for setts to be blocked by faggots or small logs, but they would have to be removed in the evening after a hunt.
A number of matters will have to be discussed in greater detail in Committee, but I am encouraged by the flexibility 1115 that the hon. Member for Newport, East has demonstrated and as a result of that and of continuing goodwill, I feel that there is a strong chance that the Bill will in due course become an Act of Parliament.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison), who based his argument and assessment on the conservation standpoint. That is a legitimate view and it is from that standpoint that, on occasion during the past 10 or 15 years, he has been a sponsor of attempts to improve the law.
The conservation argument is still valid. I take the view that the estimate of a badger population of 250,000 is on the high side. The hon. Gentleman quoted that estimate from the Nature Conservancy Council. In any case, that would be the number at the peak of the year. By early or mid February, just before cubs are born, the badger population is inevitably much lower, because of persecution and substantial losses on British roads, than it was 11 months earlier.
My presence here today is impelled not merely by the conservation argument, but by the moral argument—the question whether it is tolerable in British society today that people should behave as those who dig badger setts have behaved during the past 10 or 20 years.
I studied badgers before I became a Member of Parliament and I did not have any intention of pursuing the protection of badgers when I entered the House. However, the setts that I watched in the 1960s were assaulted in the early 1970s by people who can only be described as thugs.
When I discovered that people had put gin traps at the side of a badger sett close by the side of a school nature trail in our area in 1973—gin traps which might well have hurt the badger but could also have taken fingers from children—I decided that it was clear that I had to take action. That is why my Bill, which became the Badgers Act 1973, was presented. I had hoped that that would do the trick. It provided for protection by all except authorised persons and usually thug badger diggers are not authorised, and it made the use of badger tongs illegal, which should at least have made it impracticable for anyone to take them out. However, baiting continued, in part because we are dealing with determined people who have no compunction and no conscience and because it is a rural problem. I accept that one cannot station a police officer by the side of every badger sett to provide permanent protection.
When I was fortunate enough to draw first place in the 1974 ballot and we proceeded in 1975 with the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Bill, we improved the situation a little more. Some hon. Members present this morning attended debates on that measure. However, it was still not enough. In 1981, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) explained, there was a further improvement when the 1975 Act and a number of other pieces of legislation were taken into the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. We then hoped that we might have resolved the problem, but it was not to be.
1116 The diggers continued in their brutal and barbarous way. From time to time when they were caught they were let off by the courts on the ground that they pleaded that they did not know that badgers were in the sett. That led me to suggest that, just as police forces have road safety and crime protection officers with special responsibilities, we needed the appointment of an officer in every police force who would take responsibility for conservation matters. He would not have to have encylopaedic knowledge, but he would need to know to whom he should turn to obtain information that would allow conservation to be properly pursued in his area. Some forces have proceeded in that way.
I have been grateful to the South Yorkshire police in recent years because their approach has been intelligent and effective and has led to two prosecutions of badger diggers, one in the metropolitan borough of Rotherham, in which my constituency lies, and the other next door in Doncaster. One of those convictions was followed by an appeal which was unsuccessful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East pointed out, too many of these people are getting off and continue to have the right to subject their terriers to what is often a cruel and fatal experience.
I am especially concerned about the morality of the issue. The badger may survive in most parts of Britain, although in some areas close to conurbations—for example, in South and West Yorkshire—there has been a dramatic reduction in the population. However, the activity that the badger digger undertakes must be brought to an end. We stopped cock fighting, bear baiting and dog fighting in the 19th century, yet there has been a resurgence of dog fighting as a result of the importation of pit bull terriers, and in the past decade activities and practices have developed that are clearly utterly unacceptable and intolerable.
I have been delighted that, when the police have brought prosecutions for dog fighting, the courts have frequently awarded the tougher sentences which are entirely justified. I was delighted when one of my constituents was severely punished for indulging in such disgusting activity. I would expect any others engaged in such activity to receive the same sanction.
I see no difference between the crime committed by the dog fighter and that which is indulged in by the less responsible and more sadistic terrier men. For example, one badger dug in South Yorkshire a little while ago had its front paws chopped off so that the terriers would have a more evenly matched struggle. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are well aware of some of the more pernicious and evil acts which have been committed as part of the process of badger baiting.
I do not wish to start a competition as to who can tell the most disgusting stories of badger baiting. The fact is that odious and obscene barbarism and cruelty have persisted longer than hon. Members on both sides of the House who supported the 1973 Act expected. The House can no longer ignore its responsibility to ensure that we have some standards of civilised conduct in Britain.
There is one further argument. During the past 10 years I have changed my view. I sought to protect individual species and several species have been protected. I have now come to the conclusion—and many hon. Members share my view—that there is little use in Parliament protecting species if it does not properly protect habitats. That is one 1117 reason why I was delighted to play a part in seeking the implementation of the Berne convention on wildlife and habitat.
We are approaching a critical position in Britain and the need to protect badger setts is an illustration of it. There is scarcely an estuary in the British Isles which is not under threat from development. Numerous species have disappeared, through either development or technological and scientific change in our society. The last dolphin to be born in Welsh coastal waters died last year. It was found during the post mortem to be riddled with PCBs and other chemical substances.
The warning signal came in answer to a series of written questions which I asked in the House in December. I asked whether the Secretary of State for the Environment was satisfied with the adequacy of regulations for the protection of our environment. The Minister professed himself adequately satisfied. I then asked the Minister how many sites of special scientific interest had been damaged or destroyed in each of the previous three years and if he would state the area of land in those sites so damaged or destroyed. Hon. Members can read in the Official Report of 10 December 1990 that in 1987 more than 100 such sites were damaged or destroyed. In 1988 more than 200 and in 1989 more than 300 such sites were damaged or destroyed. In 1989 alone, the area of land damaged or destroyed within the SSSIs amounted to more than 90,000 hectares —over 0.25 million acres—of land which the present and previous Governments had acknowledged must be protected.
Yet, whenever a private Member's Bill is introduced which would prevent damage to the environment, every member of the Treasury Bench and all Conservative Members behind them go trooping through the Lobbies. That is why I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East for introducing a Bill, which Conservative Members dare not block, and which seeks to ensure that the badger remains in areas such as mine where the population is not high and people like me wish to continue to enjoy something of our natural heritage.
As I have said, I am a conservationist and I am interested in protecting the habitat. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East will accommodate hon. Members who table legitimate amendments. Conservative Members will be aware that I am not particularly eager to see fox hunting abolished by law. I have an entirely different approach. I recognise that the landscape of Britain was formed in the interests of both agriculture and field sports. Hedges, ponds and small woods were all put there to assist shooting.
I have made numerous efforts in the past decade to protect hedgerows but the Government have always blocked them. [Interruption.] I note that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) supported the Government's view. The Government will not allow hedgerows to be protected. As we do not need to produce more food from the land, hedgerows should be protected, together with ponds and copses. That might well be welcomed by the field sports interests. But I suggest that in the fox hunting shires of England it would be appropriate to have a minimum hedge height of about 8 ft 6 in. I say that advisedly. If the fox hunting interest sought to block my Bill to protect hedgerows, we should pursue that proposal with considerable enthusiasm. It may be a little 1118 hard on the horse, but I would not shed any tears about human casualties, especially if the costs incurred by private health interests were increased.
My job is not to protect Conservative Members of Parliament. I have no wish to protect people of that ilk. But we seek to protect the badger, which is attractive, useful and ornamental. It is far more useful than the vast majority of Conservative Members. I do not need to say more. The badger must be protected. We cannot complete the wall of protection that some of us hoped would be insurmountable when the 1973 Act was passed unless we accept my hon. Friend's Bill. I hope that it becomes law.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
I wish to make a short speech to congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on introducing the Bill and to wish it well. I recognise the flexibility of which he spoke and which he has written into the Bill in clause 3 which amends the Badgers Act 1973. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his approach.
The hon. Member for Newport, East said that he was worried that there was only a 55 per cent. conviction rate. That is about six percentage points higher than we achieve at the Old Bailey, but it is certain that if the Bill is passed without being changed beyond recognition it will increase the conviction rate beyond belief.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)
Of course, one of the reasons why the Bill might increase the rate of conviction beyond belief is that many innocent people would be caught, prosecuted and wrongly convicted.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
Naturally, I hope that that is not the result, but I will pay attention to that danger.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
Is not the real reason why there will be more convictions that the evidential requirements will be appreciably reduced and therefore convictions will be achieved as a result? Is not that the reason, rather than that which the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) suggests?
§ Mr. Miscampbell
As I understand it, the problem at present is that there is a let-out. People simply say either that there were no badgers there or that they were digging for some other animal, probably a fox. That is why I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East on dealing with the problem by protecting the setts rather than seeking to protect the species.
I wish to make one distinction. For those of us who take part in certain field sports, it is often difficult to condemn other field sports. I fish, and I make it perfectly plain that nothing on earth would make me vote against other legitimate field sports while I continue with my passion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East on proposing to increase the penalties. The fact that imprisonment of offenders will now be available is an important change. It puts teeth into the Bill. That will be done by means of an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which is going through the House.
Many of the offences that come before the courts are not premeditated. They are spontaneous or happen by chance. In such cases one is not seeking draconian penalties. In this instance, however, the offence arises in the most premeditated way. Having looked for setts, people go out with dogs and implements. It is the most 1119 premeditated crime that I can think of. I hope that the courts will deal with offenders, bearing that in mind. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill.
§ Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)
I am here today as a badger lover and conservationist. There are few farms in my constituency. I knew that there would be opposition from the farming community, so I gave the Bill to two farmers who live close to the constituency that I represent. When they had read it, both said that it seemed to be very reasonable—that they understood its aims and that they could support it. Other hon. Members speak with more experience of the subject. I speak as a badger lover.
My love for the badger goes back many years. I was one of those children who read about Rupert Bear and Bill Badger. The writers of children's books have the foresight, which parliamentarians do not seem to have, to want to make children appreciate wildlife animals such as the badger. I hope that those children who read about characters such as Bill Badger will learn to appreciate what a good and great creature the badger is. That is happening in wildlife parks. Children look through glass at badger setts and the activities in them. That is to be welcomed. One hopes that they will go on to understand how to treat the wildlife of this country.
The previous Bill that was introduced to protect the badger was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). In Committee he attempted to obtain approval for the Bill, but his attempt was unsuccessful. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) is a sponsor of the Bill that we are debating and hopes to be here later today. For those reasons, I wish to take part in the debate at this point.
The badger is a fine animal. I am appalled when I read reports of some of the things that happen and when I watch television programmes about the badger informing the public about what really happens. We must speak out against such cruelty. The badger is persecuted in many ways. During the past 14 years the persecution has increased immensely. Prosecutions of badger baiters have been few and far between. There were 17 in 1974 and 74 in 1990, but only 41 people were found guilty. Those who were found guilty seemed to be very unrepentant. If the legislation is tightened up, by means of the Bill, I hope that it will lead to the preservation of this beautiful animal. Last year, between 9,000 and 10,000 badgers were killed by badger hunters. Hunting on that scale could in time lead to the badger becoming an endangered species. In South Yorkshire, the badger population has almost been extinguished. The badger population is also declining in Derbyshire.
§ Mr. Colvin
The hon. Gentleman has read the brief and the newspaper articles and has picked up the figures that are bandied about regarding the number of badgers that are killed through badger baiting and badger digging. However, he must think carefully before he quotes figures in this place. Figures quoted in the Official Report of the House of Commons are often quoted outside and regarded almost as the Bible. The hon. Gentleman must know his figures are disputed. I do not accept them. All I would say 1120 is that if one badger is dug and baited, it is one too many. We should leave it at that. The badger is not an endangered species.
§ Mr. Fearn
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that figures quoted in the House will be repeated many times outside it. Three reports led me to quote those figures. Three reports are better than one. If a fourth report about those figures goes out from Hansard, I shall appreciate it.
The number of badgers that have been killed by hunters is known. I suspect that it is in excess of 9,000 to 10,000. The fact is that 210,000 people signed a petition against badger baiting. Such a number cannot be ignored. The RSPCA and other organisations asked people to sign petitions and to write to their Members of Parliament. That number amounts to massive support for the view that the badger should be protected and that badger baiting should cease altogether. I am one of those 210,000 people. Many other hon. Members have also signed the petition.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
Support for the badger is widespread. It might be thought that support for the badger would come from people living in the country. I represent about the most urban constituency in Britain, yet I have received just as many letters about this issue as about any other. I am sure that that applies to all right hon. and hon. Members, no matter what their geographical base. I hope that my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) and all those of us who say that further legislation is needed will make it clear that it will be absolutely unacceptable for any right hon. or hon. Member, by whatever procedure, to block the Bill by preventing it from going today into Committee and, later, on to the statute book. That would go against public opinion and overwhelming evidence that further legislation is needed.
§ Mr. Fearn
I thank my hon. Friend for his telling intervention.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) spoke of badgers digging into the sea wall and sea-front developments. That occurred in Southport, but the local authority and the small farming community were aware of the danger and alerted people to it.
I have been sickened by some reports that I have read on the treatment of badgers. Derbyshire police say that the going price for a live badger is £500. I must believe the figures provided by Derbyshire police. A report in The Field says:When badgers are caught, they are either chained by the leg or put in a pit, from which they cannot climb out, while a succession of dogs is set on them. An horrific film of this was recently shown on television where the bait lasted for a hour and the badger eventually became so exhausted that it was 'revived' by a spectator throwing large stones at it. The film is now in the hands of the Derbyshire police, who are using it to make an instructional video.Children should not see such films, but they should receive the widest possible publicity. I wish Derbyshire police well in showing that video; this practice must stop.
I am speaking this morning because I feel so strongly about protecting the badger. I felt on reading the Bill, and we read many private Members' Bill, that it is a sensible and sane Bill which we should all support.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn). I am sure that the House took due note of his comments and of the reservations that I expressed about the figures that he quoted.
The hon. Member spoke on behalf of the Liberal Democrats this morning, but may I use this opportunity to pay tribute to the work that his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) did on the Protection of Badger Setts Bill, which was introduced in the last Session by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). That Bill had a fairly rough ride in its three Committee sittings, but many constructive amendments were made, largely as a result of the quick thinking of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. Manuscript amendments and so forth were flying around the Committee Room with such speed that sometimes it was difficult to keep track of what was happening.
The Bill was much improved in Committee, although perhaps it still was not quite good enough. I hope that this Bill will be passed to a Standing Committee and I do not intend to try to block it. I wish it well and hope that it will be given a Second Reading. I do not believe that any hon. Member will try to stop it. I hope that it, too, will be as constructively amended in Committee as was the Protection of Badger Setts Bill.
Having listened to the speeches made this morning, I was struck most by the speech of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). I pay tribute to his campaigning vigour on conservation matters. I accept the moral argument for the Bill. Yes, there are details on which we differ, but they can be sorted out. I confess that it was music to my ears to hear his comments on field sports. There is no doubt that it is essential to preserve our natural heritage and the countryside, which was largely created by man. The field sports lobby is in the forefront of that and I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments on it. I should love us to be able to make hedgerow preservation orders, as we are able to impose tree preservation orders, because anything that helps to preserve the countryside helps to preserve the habitat that the badger so enjoys.
It is significant that the badger population is low in East Anglia. That is held to be largely due to the deprivations of gamekeepers and others, but I suspect that it is much more to do with the fact that land owners and farmers have ripped out hedges to create far bigger fields in the interests of greater economies in farming. I join the hon. Member for Wentworth in his campaign, as I know he will join those who campaign for the preservation of field sports.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on introducing the Bill and on his good fortune in drawing a high place in the ballot. He proposed his Bill concisely and thoughtfully. I also congratulate and thank him for his willingness to consult hon. Members who have strong interests in ensuring that the Bill gets on the statute book in the right form. I associate myself with his remarks on the late Donald Coleman, whom it is good to see as a sponsor of the Bill. I am sure that he is with us in spirit in the debate.
The hon. Member for Wentworth made a further point that is relevant to the debate, and in a sense it is related to a remark made by the hon. Member for Southwark and 1122 Bermondsey, who said that he represents probably the most urban constituency in the country, yet his constituents write to him saying that the badger must be protected. That is interesting, because the hon. Member for Wentworth said that the badger populations are under most threat near big conurbations. Fox hunts do not operate in suburbs around big conurbations, so to associate any depletion in badger stocks with fox-hunting activities might be dangerous, but I take the point, which was well made by the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Hardy
The hon. Gentleman's assumption may be justified except that the badger diggers who damage and kill off badgers close to conurbations are sufficiently mobile to move further out into rural Britain, at which point their activities become extensive as well as deplorable. Those who live in more remote areas should not imagine that they are free from the attentions of those individuals.
§ Mr. Colvin
I take that point, which is why I should like legislation not only to enable courts to inflict heavy fines, and perhaps imprisonment, on people found guilty of digging and baiting badgers but to confiscate dogs and vehicles so that they could not do precisely what the hon. Gentleman suggested.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
May I put to the hon. Gentleman the detail that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) mentioned on the court case in Brecon? Three of the defendants came from inner Manchester and travelled down to Brecon in mid-Wales, where they met the terrier men of the local hunt. People from the inner city, who had been engaged in horrific dog fighting, and the terrier men of the local hunt—a fearful combination —got together to do their damage.
§ Mr. Colvin
That is a valid point. There are rotten apples in all sorts of barrels.
We are discussing a private Member's Bill. I should like to comment on the nature of such legislation, because that is relevant to our discussion. To succeed, a private Member's Bill must have all-party support and there is no doubt that the Bill has that. A private Member's Bill must also have Government support, or at least the Government must not be opposed to it. We have heard of the so-called payroll vote and have seen what can happen to measures that the Government think are inadvisable. A private Member's Bill must also have general appeal outside the House. Last Session, during the passage of my Computer Misuse Bill, I initially thought that people would not be particularly interested in it, but then I found that they were. I received a large postbag of mail and people stopped me in the high street in Romsey to say, "That is a good Bill." I am sure that when the hon. Member for Newport, East returns to his constituency a t the weekend, people will stop him to say, "Well done." We say that too.
Another essential ingredient is that a private Member's Bill must not excite the opposition of a minority. That is where the Protection of Badger Setts Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, went wrong. During the passage of the Computer Misuse Bill, I was opposed by minorities on both sides of the political spectrum—one minority felt that computer crime laws infringed human rights and, at the other extreme, another minority felt that I had not gone nearly far enough and 1123 that the police should be given much more stringent powers to investigate such crimes. Happily, over endless cups of tea and a few glasses of whisky, compromises were reached and the Bill reached the statute book. Everybody must understand that that is the nature of private Members' Bills.
There is no doubt that, sometimes, a private Member's Bill reaches the statute book not precisely in the form originally intended by its promoter. The hon. Member for Newport, East has undertaken to amend the Bill in Committee in ways that some of us suggested, but once a Bill is in Committee, it is up to the Committee to make decisions, and the majority rules. Although the hon. Gentleman gave those undertakings, I should like them to be echoed by the Bill's other sponsors so that if, perchance, the Committee of Selection chooses them to serve on the Standing Committee, we will have some idea of the measure of support for his undertakings.
The hon. Member for Newport, East has been good about consulting those people with an interest in the measure. We had several discussions before the Christmas recess. We saw a draft, alternative Bill, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and which is on today's Order Paper. We thank the hon. Member for Newport, East for the way in which the consultations progressed. I am afraid that they did not lead to complete agreement, although I am happy to say that we still share a common objective.
I congratulate the Government on their action to deal with these crimes. The Criminal Justice Bill, which is wending its way through Parliament, deals with imprisonment and disqualification. In Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) tabled an amendment—I was pleased to see him in the Chamber this morning listening to our proceedings. The Minister of State, Home Office—my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold)—who will take part in this debate, gave an undertaking that on Report the Government would introduce amendments to provide for prison terms for persons convicted of some offences under the Badgers Act 1973. At present, the maximum penalty available is a fine of £2,000, but it will be increased to, I think, £5,000 or £6000, which is in line with other fines at that level on the standard scale.
I understand that the Government wanted to introduce their own amendments because they did not want imprisonment to apply to all offences under the Badgers Act—for instance, the lesser offence of refusing to quit land, which comes under section 5. In that regard, Home Office officials have said that they agree that any new offence of sett interference would not be imprisonable. I question whether that is wise. Surely it is reasonable that badger diggers should face imprisonment but not, for instance, those who recklessly disturb badgers which is not in the same category as cruelty.
§ Mr. Miscampbell
I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that a prison sentence would not be mandatory. It will be up to the court to decide whether it is appropriate to impose such a sentence. I imagine that the court would use its discretion.
§ Mr. Colvin
I welcome the intervention by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). He is a leading Queen's counsel who has been in court much more frequently than I.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)
I remind my hon. Friend that the general thrust of the Criminal Justice Bill, to which I shall allude later, is to reduce the number of people who are to be put in prison. In considering the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) and in carefully drafting our amendment to include the right sentences, we took account of imprisonment and its consequences.
§ Mr. Colvin
That is a welcome intervention and I look forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend says later on the subject. I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that prison is too good for some of the people who commit these crimes.
§ Mr. Hardy
I am sorry to intervene again, but the hon. Gentleman made a relevant point earlier. It is appropriate to remind him and to ask him to remind the Minister that it would be reasonable to argue that those badger diggers who take a motor vehicle into the countryside, perhaps on to someone else's land, to pursue their activities should run the risk of their vehicle being confiscated. I put that view forward 15 years ago. I believe that vehicles have been confiscated in Scotland but not in England. Confiscation would be a splendid and relevant alternative to imprisonment.
§ Mr. Colvin
The hon. Gentleman echoed a suggestion that I made a few moments ago. I believe there would be agreement with that proposal on both sides of the House.
I should like to return to the Criminal Justice Bill which is relevant to the issues of imprisonment and disqualification. Although, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has outlined, the introduction of new prison terms for offences under what I hope will become the Badgers Act 1991 is out of line with the Government's criminal justice policy, it is justified on three main grounds. First, despite two major amendments, the law still fails to deter badger diggers and baiters. Indeed, the practice appears to be thriving and may even be on the increase. Secondly, public sentiment about the level of cruelty involved is very strong. Thirdly, fines are out of line with the powers of imprisonment that are available to courts for offences of cruelty to domestic animals under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. In cases of badger baiting, if cruelty to the badger is proved, only a fine is available, but if cruelty to a dog is proved, imprisonment is a possible penalty, with a maximum term of six months. That is totally inconsistent.
Furthermore, under the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954, the courts have the power to disqualify persons convicted of cruelty to animals from having custody of any animal, specified for any period that is thought fit. Breach of the disqualification order can result in a fine or up to three months' imprisonment, or both. Again, it is anomalous that that power extends only to offences of cruelty to domestic animals, but not to offences of cruelty under the Badgers Act 1973. Although the courts have the power to confiscate the dogs that are used in baiting, unless cruelty to the dog can be proved, it is open to the defendant to acquire another dog at any time, yet the general power of a court to disqualify 1125 someone from keeping an animal has existed since 1954. The Protection of Badgers Bill, which has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, would extend the power to disqualify to offences of cruelty under the Badgers Act. Lesser offences and any new offences of sett interference would not be included.
I am told that the Government support the provisions and there is general agreement that disqualification is not only a good punishment and a deterrent to the people concerned, but will aid prosecution if disqualified people are later found to be badger baiting again. However, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) have proposed these provisions and I understand that the Home Office has been discussing the details with them for some time with a view to introducing separate legislation in the future. So much for the whole question of imprisonment and disqualification. I look forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend the Minister says if she catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
A key consideration in the debate is the broad measure of support for protection for the badger across the party divide and throughout the country. As drafted, the Bill almost fills all the criteria for a successful piece of private Member's legislation. It is true that more needs to be done to give badgers greater protection from the unspeakable people who dig them out of their setts and bait them with dogs. It is sickening to think that in today's so called "civilised society" people still indulge in such barbaric and obscene behaviour.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mansfield for the two early-day motions that he has tabled on this subject in the past two years. On 4 July 1989, he tabled the following early-day motion:That this House congratulates the League Against Cruel Sports on their successful, prosecutions in South Wales and Gloucestershire of two gangs of badger diggers; recognises that the current penalties are inadequate; and calls upon the Government to amend the badger protection laws to afford proper and adequate protection for badgers.That early-day motion attracted 87 signatures.
The hon. Gentleman had tabled another early-day motion on 10 January 1989:That this House condemns the publication and sale of books and magazines such as Nathan—A Pit Fighting Dog and Badger Digging with Terriers and others sold by Tideline Books of Rhyl, North Wales, together with the disgraceful campaign of articles published in Shooting News Weekly, which regularly advertises and promotes books on badger digging and dog fighting; and calls on the Government to act to stop such barbaric businesses trading in these disgusting materials.That early-day motion attracted 77 signatures. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman were to table those early-day motions now, they would gain many more signatures. I congratulate him on his actions which emphasise the all-party support for the Bill.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
I have been most impressed by the previous five or 10 minutes of the hon. Gentleman's speech. He is making a strong and passionate case for the complete defence of the badger and badger setts. However, given that, why did he insist earlier on myself and other sponsors of the Bill accepting amendments that would weaken the Bill and allow some of those barbaric things to continue? The British Field Sports Society and the fox hunting lobby want to ensure that their legitimate interests are not in any way circumscribed. Why will the hon. Gentleman not accept full protection for the badger?
§ Mr. Colvin
It is easy to answer that question. I am saying that badger digging and badger baiting are banned and unlawful and that we must strengthen the law so that we can catch, convict and adequately punish people who carry out such actions. However, we must also avoid putting on the statute book a law that provides for the conviction of totally innocent people who are going about their lawful pursuits. That is the difference. I know that it will take some debate and some compromise, but I am certain that with the will—and there is the will in the House on this matter—a compromise can be reached that safeguards the legitimate interests of those people. We are all agreed on the objective and the principle, but the question is how we achieve that objective.
We should not try to achieve that objective at the expense of country people who are going about their perfectly legitimate activities as farmers, landowners, foresters, field sportsmen or horse trainers. Perhaps I should add to that list the water companies, local authorities and the Ministry of Defence, which is an enormous landowner near my constituency. Country people are the key to catching badger diggers and bailers. It is among country people that support for the badger runs deepest because their knowledge of the badger is greatest. It is country people who will act as unpaid police to enforce the law, provided that that law accommodates their views. To alienate that potentially vast, volunteer, unpaid, enforcement agency by not paying due regard to country people's legitimate rights as farmers, landowners and field sportsmen would be a great mistake.
The hon. Member for Wentworth referred to the possibility of establishing conservation police officers in our 43 provincial police forces. That is a very good idea. Perhaps it is a role for special constables. However, there is no doubt that the enforcement of the law by the police can work only with the full-hearted consent of the public whom the police are there to protect. Therefore, when the Bill is enacted—as I hope that it will be—it will be important that it has the full-hearted support of country people. I have no need to repeat the arguments, because it has been made clear that, as drafted, the Bill could alienate some people and lead to the conviction of some perfectly innocent people, and we must avoid that. Although the Bill is fine in principle, it is flawed in the way in which it tries to protect badger setts and it runs the risk of alienating people who should be our supporters.
I accept that protection in law for badger setts is required, rather than merely protection for the badger himself, to prevent any interference that is likely to harm badgers. However, the blanket protection for which the Bill provides goes too far, just as the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West did. By including in the Bill a definition of a badger sett which will include rabbit warrens, drains, foxes' earths and other holes, the Bill will undoubtedly antagonise people in the countryside who are going about perfectly legitimate pest control activities by making such activities unlawful. That matter was raised in the meeting with the hon. Member for Newport, East before Christmas.
I know that, since then, there have been considerable attempts to agree on compromise proposals with the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and the National Federation of Badger Groups, with which we have had many discussions. Although there is now broad agreement on objectives, I am still concerned that those groups are proposing protection for vacant badger setts. They are 1127 often occupied by foxes and rabbits which everyone accepts must be controlled. Conversely, badgers often occupy earths, drains and burrows used by foxes and by rabbits. Measures to give unqualified protection to such places would make pest control impossible. I and the National Farmers Union cannot accept that.
Under the Bill, we could see work on the channel tunnel brought to an end.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) talked about undermining the channel tunnel. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) talked about the damage done to a sea wall. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside has looked at clause 3 in which those matters are spelt out.
§ Mr. Colvin
There is a difficulty with a Bill that seeks to amend another. It would help to have the Badgers Act 1973 with us so that we could compare the two and have a greater understanding of the legislation. The purpose of a Second Reading debate is to agree the principle of the Bill. I am pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Newport, East that if a badger should decide to join in the work of excavating the channel tunnel by adding its efforts to what has already been done, those who work on the tunnel, if they were to interfere with the badger sett that had been dug, would not be in breach of the law under the Bill. Is that true? I am looking for a nod from the hon. Gentleman.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I have looked at the proposed new section 9(1)(h) of the 1973 Act which refers only to works related to the drainage of land. It does not mention tunnelling for the purpose of transport, so I believe that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) is mistaken when he says that there would be a defence in a case such as the channel tunnel.
§ Mr. Colvin
There we are. We have already identified one flaw in the Bill which we shall have to address in Committee. No one wants to see an end to work on the channel tunnel.
Many badger experts, such as Dr. Stephen Harris of Bristol university, who have contributed to the Nature Conservancy Council's study on badger habitats would be the first to acknowledge that there are many more badger setts than there are badgers. Badgers love digging. Like News of the Workd journalists, they are never happier than when digging the dirt. Badgers constantly dig temporary setts which they then abandon and which become homes for foxes, rabbits and even rats. I recall a "Yes Minister" programme in which Jim Hacker's daughter was about to stage a nude sit-in at a badger sett until she discovered that rats lived there. She rapidly went off the idea. That can happen, so it is important that in considering legislation, we do not apply its onerous provisions to any hole in the 1128 ground. I have two badger setts on my farm, but I have many more holes on my farm dug by badgers. The holes have been abandoned because the badgers have moved elsewhere. I am sure that it is not the intention of the hon. Member for Newport, East to apply the provisions to any hole in the ground.
It is a mistake for the Bill's definition of "sett" to include anyplace … used by a badger for shelter".Badgers use all kinds of sheltering places. I have already mentioned foxes' earths, drains and rabbit burrows. The Bill would make interference with any of those a criminal offence. I accept that the definition—
§ Mr. Ron Davies
That is not a matter of absolute fact. As I understand the meaning of clause 4, satisfactory evidence will have to be presented to a court that a refuge is currently in use.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
The hon. Gentleman may shake his head. However, I understand that that is the basis of the law in Northern Ireland at present and the Bill repeats the wording in use there. There are 10 fox hunts that are happy to carry out their activities with that protection. Why cannot the hon. Gentleman accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) is promoting the Bill in good faith? He has accepted that the Bill must include clause 4 which provides a defence. We have tried and tested evidence from Northern Ireland that that wording is a satisfactory and workable solution.
§ Mr. Colvin
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. I do not think that the Bill is the same as the provisions affecting Northern Ireland. I will deal with the question of Northern Ireland's legislation a little later.
I thought that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) was going to raise the fact that the definition is broadly the same as that in section 9(4) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That Act protects rare animals and we all know that badgers are not rare animals. In many parts of the country, badgers are prolific. The Badgers Act 1973 was not designed to give badgers unique protection because there are so few of them. It was designed to protect them from cruelty and that is the purpose of the Bill as well. The Wildlife and Countryside Act protects rare animals from intentional interference whereas the Bill goes far further by seeking to outlaw "reckless" interference as well.
I agree that setts should be protected against interference that is likely to harm a badger; to destroy or to cause serious damage to occupied setts is not acceptable. Equally, non-harmful interference with setts should not be criminalised. Damage to an occupied sett, for example, as a consequence of an agricultural operation or of a properly conducted sett-stopping operation for the purposes of fox control—
§ Mr. Miscampbell
I should be prepared to turn out in court, for proper remuneration, and to argue that if a badger sett meansany structure or place occupied or used by a badger for shelter or protection",it must either be currently occupied or currently used, not merely that it has previously been used. I believe that the Bill refers to current occupation or to current use.
§ Mr. Colvin
That is the opinion of a Queen's counsel and I take note of it, although I would dispute it.
The earth stopping to which I have referred is a vital feature of fox hunting and fox control because it prevents foxes from going to ground. It is particularly important for fox control in sheep farming districts where badgers and their setts are numerous. Stopping badger setts also prevents the disturbance to badgers that would occur if a fox were to go to ground in an occupied badger sett. Earth stopping is conducted under the code of practice issued by the Masters of Fox Hounds Association to all recognised packs of hounds. Properly conducted stopping with soft earth, as recommended in the code, causes no harm to badgers. The code states that foreign objects should not be used for earth stopping and there are no grounds for preventing the legitimate stopping of setts or any hole down which a fox may go.
There has also been discussion—certainly in the Standing Committee on the previous Bill—about the Masters of Fox Hounds Association code of practice, which states that earth stopping is an important feature of fox hunting, both for good sport and the control of foxes where it is necessary. Furthermore, stopping of badger setts is proved to be far less disturbing to badgers than hounds and people disturbing earths where the foxes go to ground. The code states that it is stupid to attempt to dig foxes in well-known badger setts that should be stopped anyway. The committee request masters to desist from that practice and say that drums, road cones and such foreign objects should not be used for earth stopping, and plastic bags should be employed only if they are removed after hunting. The experts recommend soft earth as the best method of earth stopping. It precludes the necessity of unstopping, which is often difficult to organise and entails a second disturbance.
The chairman of the association, Mr. R. E. Wallace, said:I emphasise once again that on no account should Hunt Servants, which includes Terriermen in any way acting on behalf of the Hunt, accede to requests to move or destroy badgers.There has been much debate on the subject of earth stopping and the evidence that it might cause harm to badgers. There is no evidence to show that properly conducted earth stopping is in any way harmful to badgers. The only scientific evidence available shows precisely the opposite. Lindsay and MacDonald's research document, "The Effects of Disturbance on the emergence of Eurasian Badgers in Winter", published in 1985, concluded:When subjected to stopping, the badgers postpone their emergence times. However, we could detect no damaging effect upon the badgers due to these delays or otherwise due to stopping when it was practised responsibly.It continued:Where stopping is deemed necessary it should only be done either with loose soil, which the badgers can easily dislodge, or with bungs such as soil-filled sacks, which the huntsmen should remove at the end of a day's hunting.In 1990, the naturalist writer, Mr. Robin Page, conducted an investigation to monitor the effect of stopping on badgers.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
My hon. Friend started well by saying that he was anxious for the Bill to go into Committee, for which we all applauded him because we wanted the issues to be discussed further. However, he now makes points that would be better made in 1130 Committee when we discuss new clauses and amendments. He is talking about subjects not actually contained in the Bill at present. He should take heed of the feeling of the House and postpone his valuable contribution until a later date.
§ Mr. Colvin
We are not discussing the Bill's detail, on which I have not encroached. We are discussing the Bill's principle and earth stopping is important to the principle of what is proposed.
The naturalist writer, Mr. Robin Page, visited setts in Gloucestershire and Clwyd that were regularly being stopped with earth. On making return visits a few months later, he noticed that all the setts appeared to be occupied and had been dug out by badgers. All the signs showed that there were plentiful and normal badger operations. In Clwyd he observed many signs of an active, flourishing colony of badgers, much fox activity, and fox earths around the badger setts.
The League Against Cruel Sports and the National Federation of Badger Groups have produced a document, to which reference was made earlier, entitled "The Case for the Protection of Badger Setts." It records the more serious incidents of serious disturbances to badger setts, as assessed by 55 badger protection groups. Either the cases have been deliberately selected by the LACS and the NFBG—I shall use the acronyms to save time—as the worst incidents of sett damage or the incidents of damage by hunts bear no relation to the problems caused by badger diggers.
The survey extends back to 1982, but the Masters of Fox Hounds Association code of practice on earth stopping was only introduced in 1987. Many of us would argue that it should have been introduced far earlier. However, hunts had their own rules and most of them did the job properly. But, as self-regulation is considered better than regulation by Government, it was felt that the fox hounds association should get its act together and its house in order, which is precisely what it did in 1987, with the publication of its code.
The Royal Society for Nature Conservation, which is perhaps a more impartial organisation than the LACS, stated:Increasingly, hunts are following the Masters of Fox Hounds code of practice, which allows light stopping with soil or twigs, which are then cleared within 24 hours. This responsible approach ensures little disturbance to the badgers.That report, published in 1991, was entitled, "Badgers, The Future".
The validity of the survey of the LGCS and the NF13G must also be questioned. It transpires that alleged incidents in Fife were reported by a hunt saboteur who probably has an axe to grind. The authenticity of the reports of sett damage by hunts must be open to serious question. In his survey, Dr. Stephen Harris recorded blocking of setts, but the results have been selectively quoted by proponents of the Bill.
It was claimed by the hon. Member for Newport, East at a press conference to launch his Bill, that more than 15 per cent. of active main setts had at least some holes blocked. He might have gone on to say that only 2.6 per cent. of the blockings were assessed to be severe. There was no sign of who was responsible for the blockings and only 4.6 per cent. of outlying setts were blocked. The Harris report conceded that it was impossible to estimate how long the holes had remained blocked.
1131 Dr. Harris did not feel so constrained by his own scientific evidence when he wrote in the BBC "Wildlife" magazine in July 1989:Despite guidelines from the Masters of Fox Hounds Association, blocking by fox hunts is a serious problem in some areas.Maintaining that rigorous scientific analysis, he continued:We do not know what effect this high level of sett blocking has on badgers, but in the New Forest local naturalists believe that complete blocking of setts has caused a serious decline in badger numbers there.There is no evidence for these allegations, but the local naturalist referred to in the New Forest is probably a well-known anti-hunting campaigner.
The Bill contains no provision to make the stopping of setts illegal. Proponents of the Bill have said that they are prepared to accept a defence for earth stopping, but I need reassurances about what sort of provision they intend to incorporate to effect that. It is essential that light stopping with soil be allowed so that the badger can dig himself out, as recommended by the Masters of Fox Hounds Association. The Protection of Badgers Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster solves this problem of sett stopping by outlawing any blocking of a sett that is likely to cause bodily harm to a badger. It will permit light stopping with soil but prohibit hard blocking or the use of foreign objects. The courts would have to decide whether a method was harmful, but it must be emphasised that the harmful blocking of setts is not permitted under my hon. Friend's Bill.
If there were scientific evidence that hunt practices were harming badgers, the courts would rule that stopping was unlawful. Those who make allegations about interference with setts without evidence of the effects on badgers will of course be a little uncomfortable with this view. I acknowledge that this matter goes to the heart of any constructive opposition that there may be to this measure. I accept what the hon. Member for Newport, East has said about meeting these anxieties in Committee, and I quote from the "House Magazine" of 14 January in which he said:I must also emphasise that this is not a back door method of attacking fox hunting.I accept that. This was something that we found rather hard to accept from the hon. Member for Newham, North-West who, almost in the same breath, when proposing his Protection of Badger Sets Bill, promoted another for the abolition of fox hunting—
§ Mr. Colvin
Exactly. The hon. Member for Newport, East is not introducing any such idea by the back door, and I congratulate him on that.
There has been considerable discussion of the work done by Dr. Stephen Harris of the department of zoology at the university of Bristol. I have a copy of his newly published report which arrived in the post only this morning, priced at £9—
§ Mr. Colvin
I will not extend the debate by reading all of it, although I could do so if I wanted to engage in a 1132 filibuster. I was one of the few who possessed the report in draft during the proceedings on the Protection of Badger Setts Bill. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West will remember that I mentioned in Committee that the report was not yet available to us and that I would use my best endeavours to procure a copy. Dr. Harris, obliging as ever, came to lunch and let me have a copy in draft.
The report, entitled "The History, Distribution, Status and Habitat Requirements of the Badger in Britain" is essential reading for anyone fortunate enough to find himself appointed to the Standing Committee which I hope will consider this Bill. The project has three principal aims: first, to provide a base line against which any future changes in badger numbers could be assessed; secondly, to quantify the habitat requirements of badgers in Britain and to estimate badger numbers and distribution and calculate the effects of land use changes and persecution on badger numbers.
§ Mr. Randall
If the hon. Gentleman feels that this document is crucial reading for the Committee stage, why is he reading it to the House now?
§ Mr. Colvin
I am not reading it; I have just said that I will not read it to the House. However, given the interest that hon. Members have shown in the document, I believe that it would help the House if it knew what was in it. Hon. Members have referred to it with no knowledge of its detail. I shall not go into that detail now, but I offer the House a summary of the sort of investigations that were carried out, since we need to know how valid references to them in this debate have been.
To achieve the goals that I have just described, Dr. Harris and his team decided to survey pre-selected 1 km squares on a grid throughout the whole of Britain. That provided a stratified and unbiased sample from which badger numbers could be calculated. It was important to complete the field work in as short a time as possible, so it was decided that the survey should be completed within two years and that enough manpower should be provided for such a nationwide survey. One full-time surveyor, Penny Cresswell, was employed and volunteer helpers were also sought. These volunteers came from a variety of sources—Nature Conservancy Council staff provided some help and naturalists were also involved. Forestry Commission staff were also employed, as were badger enthusiasts and people who were generally interested in country matters.
To ensure that everyone collected comparable data and to avoid bias, everyone was sent detailed instructions on how to go about the survey and on what information to record. I have not seen a copy of those instructions and the report does not seem to contain them, but I should like to see them in order to assess them.
A total of 2,455 such 1 km squares were surveyed—that is, 1.5 per cent. of Britain. In each square, every piece of land was thoroughly searched for signs of badgers or badger setts. Of these, 667—26.9 per cent.—were surveyed by Penny Cresswell, to whom we pay tribute for her hard work on the survey. The rest were covered by volunteers.
To check the validity of the volunteer's data, the results from every square were carefully collected by Penny Cresswell and any queries were returned to the suveyor. Then the results from the squares covered by the volunteers were checked against those collected by Penny and a wide range of statistical tests were applied to see 1133 whether there was bias in any of the data collected by the volunteers. There was apparently none, I am glad to say, and the results were of a uniformly high standard. That was undoubtedly due to the detailed instructions sent to all volunteers and to the careful scrutiny of all the results before they were included in the analysis.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
Why is the hon. Gentleman indulging in this filibuster, given that he has said that he supports the Bill and wants it to be given a Second Reading? If he is not filibustering, will he be so good as to tell us when he intends to sit down?
§ Mr. Colvin
It may be an hour, but there have been many interventions, including the one that the hon. Gentleman has just made. Tomorrow's Official Report will show that I have given way to every intervention. I shall continue to do so.
§ Mr. Hughes
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Reports just publicised suggest that the Government of Iraq may be about to announce a withdrawal from Kuwait. If that is the case, could a Minister come to the House and make a statement, not at the usual time on Fridays but at 2.30? Any opportunity to encourage the Government of Iraq in their intentions should be taken at the earliest possible moment. I hope that those on the Government Front Bench will relay that to colleagues in the appropriate Department. May we have a statement as soon as possible?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
I am sure that that has been noted by Treasury Ministers and that Mr. Speaker will deal without delay with any such request to his office.
§ Mr. Colvin
That intervention is another good reason for hastening my speech. 1 hope that hon. Members will desist from interventions so that we can make rapid progress.
The figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) about the number of badgers in Britain said it all. However, he did not mention the fact that 47,000 badgers die on our roads every year. That proves that these nocturnal animals are much more at risk from drivers than from the depredations of badger diggers and baiters.
Although badgers are not rare nationally, the survey found that their distribution is localised. Some 25 per cent. are found in south-west England, which has 10 per cent. of Britain's land area, and 22 per cent. are found in south-east England which forms 13 per cent. of Britain's land area. Conversely, Scotland, with 33 per cent. of Britain's land area, has only 10 per cent. of the badger population. In some areas, such as East Anglia, to which I referred earlier, the low number of badgers is a reflection of the great persecution that occurred in the last century, probably because of the activities of gamekeepers, but much more likely because of the activities of land owners 1134 in removing the habitat that the badger enjoys. The numbers today are low and badgers have not managed to build up to their former levels.
A questionnaire survey of all the local badger groups, undertaken before the national survey results were available, showed that in most areas badger persecution was thought to be fairly low. However, the more quantified results produced by the NCC survey showed that persecution was more widespread and frequent than previously assumed. Nearly 16 per cent. of all active main setts had some or all of their holes blocked, largely as a result of hunting, and the survey concluded that in Britain nearly 17,000 setts of all types were affected by some sort of hole blocking. Similarly, nearly 11 per cent. of all active main setts had been dug, and Dr. Harris calculated that about 9,000 setts of all types were dug in Britain each year.
Assuming—and it is only an assumption—that one badger is killed on each dig, that will amount to a loss of 9,000 badgers per annum. However, that is a dangerous assumption. It could be an underestimate because in some areas, notably the west of Scotland, it was impossible to quantify the level of badger persecution. It was also impossible to quantify the loss of badgers caused by the indiscriminate use of snares, although 1 per cent. of all setts were found to have snares set around them. That shows the extent of the underestimation.
I am glad to report that the national survey will be repeated in future years. It provides a benchmark for future comparisons. It is important that the modus operandi of future surveys follows the same lines as the original one so that we can compare like with like.
I know that the report has been criticised. I have been critical of it, but we should pay tribute to Dr. Harris for all his work in this area at Bristol university. In that context, it is relevant to pay tribute to the work carried out by the BBC television studios in Bristol. Their wildlife presentations have done much to excite the population about wildlife and to promote wildlife conservation. Badger conservationists claim that between 9,000 and 10,000 badgers, out of a population of 250,000, are killed every year. Those are highly questionable figures. They have arisen as a consequence of that assumption to which I referred, based on Dr. Harris's research on sett disturbance and an estimate by the League Against Cruel Sports, based on, apparently, no research at all. The research work was done by a team of 500 untrained volunteers who identified 11 per cent. of setts as showing signs of have been dug. The criterion for recording such signs has not been disclosed. Furthermore, only half this number, a 5.5 per cent. were main setts—that is, setts likely to contain badgers.
Using the estimate of a total British badger population of approximately 250,000 adults, the researchers then assumed first that any signs of digging that were still visible were of digging that had occurred in the previous year and, secondly, that, on average, one badger was killed on each dig. Both assumptions are highly dubious. However, the researchers reached the conclusion that 9,000 badgers are killed by diggers each year. This was neatly corroborated by the estimate from the League Against Cruel Sports of 10,000 killed. Commonsense would suggest that the true figure is probably very much lower.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) will forgive me for interrupting his speech.
There are an increasing number of reports, including those broadcast from Baghdad Radio, that the Iraqi Government have announced that they are ready to consider withdrawing from Kuwait, which would be a development of the most major importance. Could it be communicated to the Government that the House would like a statement on this matter as soon as possible today, because we should need to consider and discuss it?
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that I shall make sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office understand the nature of the request that he has made and that they respond as quickly as possible.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you will understand, it is the wish of the House that we have a statement from the Government before the House rises this afternoon, given that we shall not meet again until Monday afternoon. In view of the rumours of the significant events, and given that my party has tabled a motion on the Gulf situation, which is to be debated next week, it is extremely important that we have a statement before 2.30 this afternoon.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
That is the third point of order that we have had in the past 10 or 15 minutes. The Minister has made the position clear. We must now allow a little time for communications from the House to reach the appropriate Government Department.
§ Mr. Colvin
A myth has been propagated and must be corrected. It is claimed that it is simple for people accused of badger digging to say that they were merely after foxes, not badgers and thus to escape conviction. Those who propagate this myth have clearly never read the Badgers Act 1973. I can understand that, because it has not been available. Nor have they seen the growing list of convictions under the Act as it has been amended. The Wild Life and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985 amended the Badgers Act to reverse the burden of proof so that once the prosecution has merely established that there is evidence that an accused person was attempting the offence, his guilt is presumed unless he shows otherwise. It is therefore absurd and wrong to suggest that the prosecution of these cases suffers from an overwhelming and deterring evidential burden.
When uninformed people talk of the difficulties of providing expert evidence in court for prosecutions under the 1973 Act, they should be aware that those who face difficulties are defendants and not the prosecution. However despicable crimes of badger digging and baiting may be, it is important to appreciate that there are few other offences where the burden of proof is reversed. In cases where the defence secures an acquittal, the prosecution evidence must be extremely light. It is said that the guilty are not being successfully prosecuted, but the substantial publicity that is being afforded to cases of badger digging and baiting is probably an element in the increase in successful prosecutions.
1136 For every unsubstantiated claim, the droves—
§ Mr. Ron Davies
The hon. Gentleman has spoken for well over an hour, and there is a great deal of dissatisfaction on the Opposition Benches. It appears that he is intent on attempting to talk out the Bill. In the early part of his extremely long speech, he asked my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) and the supporters of the Bill whether they would agree to compromises in Committee. My hon. Friend clearly and honestly said that he would be prepared to accept amendments and that he was prepared to compromise. If the hon. Gentleman put his questions to my hon. Friend in good faith and if my hon. Friend and others have given undertakings that we shall compromise in Committee, does not he accept that he has a responsibility to tell us whether he intends to try to talk out the Bill, or whether he accepts that the House is anxious to bring the matter to a conclusion? Does he recognise that he has a duty to us all, and to himself, to bring his speech to a conclusion?
§ Mr. Colvin
It is just midday. Not many hon. Members have been rising to speak in the debate. Let us get these facts on the record, and let us get the record straight. Parliamentary time for the debate continues until 2.30 pm and, as I have said, it is only just midday. The debate has been in progress for two-and-a-half hours. In the absence of many hon. Members who previously indicated a desire to speak in the debate, I feel that the remarks that I have made have been relevant to the Bill, particularly the principle of the Bill. Nevertheless, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. Let me make it clear that I do not want to interrupt the safe passage of the Bill into Committee.
§ Mr. Colvin
Let me conclude. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear those words. I shall do so by enlightening the hon. Member for Newport, East on the sort of provisions that we should like to see incorporated in the Bill when it is considered in Committee. We do not want there to be any doubts.
I reiterate that badgers are not rare animals. The Nature Conservancy Council has confirmed that badgers are not endangered. The activities of badger diggers and baiters have necessitated badgers being given increasing and substantial protection under the 1973 Act, and as it was amended, and it is common ground that still further measures are necessary. Some badger diggers are evading conviction by claiming that they are digging for foxes, and badger setts are not protected. Some setts have been damaged in ways that harm badgers, and that must be stopped. To date, the proposals made for extending protection to badger setts have not been acceptable to me, principally for the following reasons. First, setts would be protected even when vacant or disused, or occupied by foxes rather than badgers. Fox and rabbit control operations would therefore, be prevented. Secondly, there would be no link between interference with badger setts and the harm that that would be likely to cause the badger.
Acts likely to harm the badger should be prevented. They might include serious damage to a sett, or permanent hard obstructions at its entrances. However, non-harmful interference, such as damage to a disused sett, or temporary obstruction of its entrances, should not be an offence. I should like the Bill to be amended to outlaw 1137 harmful interference, while permitting non-harmful activities. It should further restrict the entry of dogs into setts and close the loophole that allows badger diggers to claim that they were after foxes.
The Bill should also increase the penalties for badger digging and acts of cruelty and give the courts new powers to disqualify those convicted of such offences from owning dogs and vehicles.
The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster largely does what I have just described, and also creates the new offence of entering a terrier into a sett in pursuit of a badger. That should follow the precedent in the Badgers Act 1973, in reversing the burden of proof. A person found to have entered a terrier into a sett should be presumed to have been in pursuit of a badger, unless he can prove otherwise. Defendants should be prevented from claiming that they were not after badgers, unless they had authority from the occupier of the land to be there.
Taken together, those provisions would ensure that persons proved to have been digging, or to have entered a terrier into a sett, would, unless they had authority to do so from the occupier of the land, face certain conviction. They would still be convicted, unless they could show that they were engaged in an innocent activity.
The Bill should also impose tougher penalties. That requirement is largely taken on board by the Criminal Justice Bill, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt refer. The Bill should disqualify persons convicted of badger digging and related offences, including entering a terrier in pursuit of the badger, from keeping a dog. That power has been available to courts since 1954, in respect of cruelty offences involving domestic animals, but not in respect of offences under the Badgers Act 1973. Courts have the power to confiscate any dogs used in the commission of badger digging and related offences, but that does not prevent offenders from acquiring new dogs—and it should.
The Bill should create the new offence of intentional or reckless interference with a badger sett, when that is likely to cause bodily harm to the badger. Such interference would embrace damage, destruction or obstruction of the entrances to a sett. The effect of such a provision would be that persons interfering with a sett in a manner likely to cause bodily harm—actual harm would not have to be proved—would be committing a criminal offence. A person ignoring an obvious risk and guilty of activity that would interfere with a sett would still commit an offence. He would not have to intend interference or to cause harm. It would be for the court to decide whether the harm was likely—and bodily harm is a wider definition than injury. It clearly includes starvation, in cases where badgers could not leave their setts, but excludes less serious types of harm that do not trouble badgers.
Serious damage to a sett or permanent hard obstruction of its entrances should be prevented, but non-harmful interference—such as damage to a disused sett or temporary obstruction of its entrances—should not be an offence. That would allow sensible stopping of sett entrances by hunts. By linking interference with likely harm to badgers, a definition of a sett is avoided, and overcomes one of the problems of the Bill. Clearly, no offence would be committed if a sett were disused.
The Bill should also make consequential amendments to section 8 and 9 of the Badgers Act 1973, to permit interference by licence. Licences could be issued by the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of the 1138 Environment for the purposes of agriculture, forestry or drainage operations, lawful development, maintaining the safety of bridleways, or investigating offences.
If the hon. Member for Newport, East has been listening to what I am saying, I hope that he will realise that the Bill still needs changes and that it could be amended to keep sight of the objectives that I am sure we all share. If that is done and my concerns are accommodated and included in the measure, the Bill will be tougher on badger diggers than any previous measure. It will also provide substantial new protection for badger setts, while allowing non-harmful countryside activities to continue, which is what we all want.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) spoke for one minute short of an hour and 20 minutes and he has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted. At the beginning of his speech he said that he supported the Bill but he spoke for almost an hour and 20 minutes in an attempt to complicate procedures today, which is perhaps in some way connected to the fact that the Protection of Badgers Bill appears at No. 13 on the Order Paper.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside asked my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) whether he is prepared to be conciliatory and to do deals. In his honest and open fashion, my hon. Friend said that he would. However, I warn my hon. Friends about attempting to do deals with the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside because he cannot be trusted—he has amply demonstrated that by his behaviour today. I remember the way that he conducted himself in the Committee stage of my Protection of Badger Setts Bill. I hope that he will not be a member of the Committee on this Bill because he will be there only to try to frustrate progress.
I genuinely welcome the Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East on introducing it. The Bill is similar to the one that I introduced a year ago and which, as the House knows, completed its Committee stage but was blocked on Report by fox hunting Members of Parliament. One of the premier Members involved was the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside.
I have received hundreds of letters about the situation in the Gulf, but I have received many more hundreds on badgers. It might be a bit tasteless to mention it at this time, but I am beginning to think that if Saddam Hussein had been gassing badgers rather than Kurds, the British people might have had an earlier warning of how evil a man he is. If he had been doing so, the Government would have come under greater pressure from the public not to trade with Saddam Hussein or to train his troops, both of which we did while he was murdering his own people and waging war on Iran.
At this time of high crisis it could be said that the British people's concern for badgers is a sign of our inherent dottiness. I think that it is a sign that we are not entirely a lost cause. The degree of interest in animal welfare in this country is palpable. We all understand that because of the letters that we receive. We also know just how cruel humanity can be to so many species of animals. We have discussed many of them in the House before: whales, elephants, rhinos, gorillas, dolphins—the list goes on.
1139 I feel somewhat homicidal when I consider how cruel human beings can be to animals. Wars usually involve crimes against humanity, but the elimination of a species of animal is a crime against the planet and it is fair to say that it is far more serious in the great cosmos of events. In my more extreme moments I begin to believe that this planet would be a far finer place if no human being lived upon it.
I suppose that for many of us our love of badgers originates from Kenneth Grahame's book "The Wind in the Willows". I still find it delightful, when I return home late from the House, to sit up in bed and listen to Alan Bennett's wonderful BBC tapes of his readings from "The Wind in the Willows". I hasten to add that my domestic pleasures are not entirely limited to listening to endless reiterations of the adventures of Badger, Toad, Rat and Mole, but the job of a Member of Parliament seems to give one more opportunity to listen to tales about the wild wood than to experience them for oneself.
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend says that we are in a zoo. I think that menagerie is a much better description. Often one does not like the creatures with which we have to share the aviary.
I have read recently that Kenneth Grahame's book is now analysed as a tale of class divisions in Edwardian England. Personally I prefer reading Jack London for a description of class divisions in Edwardian times. But one can see the analogy. I cannot take from my mind the class image of Toad when I see the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) wearing his country checks on a Friday. I am sad that he is not with us today to join in our proceedings. He is Toad to a T.
The hon. Member for Crawley, together with the hon. Members for Romsey and Waterside, for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) sabotaged my Bill to protect badgers. The hon. Members for Romsey and Waterside and for Upminster said that I was not prepared to accept amendments.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
It is outrageous for the hon. Gentleman to use terms such as "sabotage". He knows perfectly well that throughout the Committee stage we made strenuous efforts to put compromises to him which would have enabled the Bill to proceed, but, because he was being advised by the League Against Cruel Sports, and contrary to everything that he told us that he was prepared to do, he refused to consider any of the compromises.
§ Mr. Banks
It is a bit rich for the mouthpiece of the British Field Sports Society and the hunters and shooters to throw such accusations across the House to me. He must be aware, unless his memory is very suspect and selective, that I and the supporters of the Bill made a range of concessions on the stopping up of setts. I did it most reluctantly. I did not want to allow any alterations to the Bill, but, because I was led to believe that we could do a deal, I was prepared seriously to weaken the Bill, for example, by allowing the stopping up of badger setts with soft earth. But that was still not enough. The hon. 1140 Gentlemen were prepared to allow the Bill to complete its Committee stage, but they always knew that they could ambush it on the Floor of the House on Report.
It is no good Conservative Members who represent the hunting and shooting lobby—which they do very definitely —saying that they are the great friends of badgers when they are preventing the House from closing a most obvious loophole and protecting the badger sett. The way in which they have gone about their business is disgraceful and unscrupulous. If they believe that they will get away with it, they make a great miscalculation.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside said that he supported the Bill. Well, we shall test him. I support the Bill. A great majority of the Members of the House support the Bill. The vast majority of people in Britain support the Bill. He had better not try again to sabotage a measure to protect badgers.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
I make it clear straight away that I strongly support the Bill. I shall limit my remarks in order to ensure that I do not endanger its progess to the Committee stage.
The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) should be congratulated not only on his good luck in obtaining fifth place in the ballot but on choosing a measure which will have enormous support throughout Britain. The badger is not only a well-loved animal. Its distinctive features have made it a symbol of nature conservation in this country. There is tremendous interest in greater protection for the badger.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) in his place. He and I crossed swords in two general elections in 1974. Perhaps our relationship then and our continuing good relationship since is not unrelated to the fact that we both knew that he would have a majority of 30,000. Indeed, I may be the only Member of the House who has had 50,000 people at a single general election voting against having him as their Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Waller
The hon Gentleman has made a very wise and generous point. Since then his constituency has been divided. Another Member of Parliament now represents many of the areas whose streets we walked 16 or 17 years ago.
Most attention has been focused on the activities of a group of wicked and ruthless people who use unspeakable methods in search of their prey. We should not forget, however, that the badger is at least as much at risk from the activities of people who have little interest in furthering the badger's welfare, but allow their concern for development or farming to override the need to abide by a code of practice. They represent a very small minority. Nevertheless, they do great damage to the badger.
It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said, that the badger is not an endangered species, but in some areas the numbers have been decimated. The fact that there are many badgers in 1141 this country should not allow us to envisage a compromise that would run a coach and horses through the Bill's objectives.
We are not dealing with those who have been described as spotty-faced 16-year-olds. Those who go out in search of badgers are very dangerous, hardened people. At one time those concerned with the welfare of badgers—the protection groups to whose work I pay tribute—were anxious that the location of particular setts should be kept secret. They do not believe that the need to keep their location secret is so great now; they believe that the threat is not from the general public, who can do a great deal of good by drawing attention to the activities of badger diggers and badger baiters, but from a nationwide network of people who pass information to one another about the location of particular setts. Many of those groups have their base in terrier clubs.
§ Mr. Colvin
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the law that will be enacted, I hope, as a result of the Bill receiving a Second Reading today should have the support of country people? In a sense, they will be the supplementary enforcers of the law. Much of the police action that will be necessary to enforce the law will depend on a network of providers of information. Country people will not give information if they are antagonised by a measure on the statute book. Does my hon. Friend accept that we must win the support of country people if this legislation is to be made to work?
§ Mr. Waller
We certainly need the support of people generally. I should not like to draw a distinction between town people and country people. Badgers are at great risk in South Yorkshire where one is never far from a town or from the country. That applies to many parts of the country where badgers are at risk.
There have been very few successful prosecutions, but we must bear it in mind that there have in fact been very few prosecutions. That does not suggest that a problem does not exist. Due to the present state of the law on badgers, the Crown prosecution service often does not believe that it stands much chance of achieving successful prosecutions. It needs to have a better than 50:50 chance before it will initiate a prosecution. There are many stories about diggers and baiters in Keighley and in many other parts of the country. The police know about their activities, but in many cases they are unable to take action, much as they would like to do so. The badger diggers know very well what the law is. They employ the best solicitors and know how to get round the law. They will go to extreme lengths to achieve their aims.
§ Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)
Will my hon. Friend accept that there have been a number of successful prosecutions recently in Shropshire, which endorses the case that he is presenting? Does he further agree that the fines and punishments are lamentable? I congratulate him on raising the point about successful prosecutions.
§ Mr. Waller
Penalties must be increased, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister has already considered that. I look forward to hearing her speech.
It may interest the House to hear of the lengths to which people will go. A fox was put down a sett to give the impression that it was used by foxes. On investigation, it was found that the fox had been shot, put in a deep freeze and was still partly frozen when it was put down the sett. 1142 In another case, a fox was run over by a Transit van and a digger carried it with him in a sack to try to show that he was digging for foxes.
I am not accusing all terrier men of indulging in those practices—far from it, I acknowledge that we are talking about a minority—but if they want to preserve their sport they will have to change some of the ways in which they operate to take proper account of the need to protect the badger.
In some cases, the battle between dogs and the badger may rage for several hours. Exhausted dogs that emerge from a sett are replaced by others and the diggers get to work. Once they have exposed the sett, the badger may be brutally killed or baited by other dogs either at the site or elsewhere.
§ Mr. Rogers
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am a breeder and owner of English bull terriers and the expression "terrier men" can be extremely misleading. I hope that he will explain that that expression applies only to the sadists who use dogs for fighting or for pursuing other animals. Perhaps he will emphasise that the so-called animal and dog lovers who belong to outfits such as the British Field Sports Society pay no regard to the degradation and injuries that dogs suffer from badgers, which are extremely strong animals, in pursuance of this vicious, cruel and obnoxious sport. Genuine dog lovers, not hypocrites, would like the hon. Gentleman to explain that point and to mention that breed societies do all they can to prevent these lovable and loyal animals from falling into the hands of those sadists.
§ Mr. Waller
I have already said that we are talking about a small minority of dog breeders and terrier men. I know that the overwhelming majority of them love their dogs and would not allow the kind of thing that I am about to describe.
§ Mr. Colvin
Will my hon. Friend correct the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) that those who indulge in badger baiting are somehow included in the "field sports public", because nothing is further from the truth? Those who participate in field sports want to see the Bill on the statute book as much as anyone. We want those who bait and dig badgers, who are an abomination, brought to court, tried and convicted, but we do not want innocent people to be brought to court.
§ Mr. Waller
My hon. Friend has made his point well, so I need not add to it.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told me of one case. The police asked its inspectors to examine four terriers and some equipment. An inspector immediately took three of the dogs to a vet for urgent treatment. One had part of his tongue ripped away and had seven teeth missing, while the face of a second had been bitten through to the bone, with perforations of the palate. Such wounds could have been caused only by a badger or a large dog. As hon. Members said, badgers are fierce animals when cornered. Those who obtain their sadistic fun in this way sometimes put badgers with their dogs.
In areas such as South Yorkshire, enormous trouble has been taken to protect badgers by reinforcing setts. That can be effective. Some 33 setts have been protected by the South Yorkshire badger group, and only two of them have been abandoned. Some of the setts have been 1143 reinforced with steel and concrete, which have to be chiselled away to get at the badgers. I am glad to say that usually badger diggers are deterred.
There is a popular misconception that the police and the Crown prosecution service are not interested in prosecuting badger diggers and badger baiters, but that is not so. In my experience, the police and the CPS are anxious to secure convictions of guilty men, but there are prosecution difficulties. I pay especial tribute to the police in the Aire valley division in West Yorkshire who are prepared to use helicopters to take officers to a location and have used helicopters in order to photograph setts. The police have said that the cost of the operation may be much greater than any penalties that they could hope to have imposed, but they are prepared to go ahead.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
I strongly reinforce what my hon. Friend told the House about police attitudes. In my county of Essex, the police have gone out of their way to deal with this wicked treatment of wildlife. I am glad to say that in my constituency attacks on badgers have diminished. Reference to "sport" in this connection disgusts me and the vast majority of my constituents.
§ Mr. Waller
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is right. The amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 have helped in that they have put the onus on the defence, but it is still necessary to establish that a sett has been occupied by badgers, which is difficult to prove and requires expert witnesses. Sadly, the hopes for the Badgers Act 1973, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985 have not been fully achieved. All too often, badgers are still persecuted and one has to fall back on a charge of cruelty to dogs if the diggers do not seek treatment for injured animals.
The time has come for the House to take further action. It is necessary to deal with the activities of some irresponsible farmers and developers—they are a minority —who have attacked setts with digging machines or who have poured concrete down entrances to destroy setts. Those who at present abide by the proper code of conduct should have no trouble with the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Newport, East. If a sett is damaged by accident, one will have a defence.
It is encouraging that, by and large, the debate has proceeded in moderate terms. I hope that there is a wish to reach a satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues.
§ Mr. Waller
No, I shall not give way
I hope that there will be a speedy Committee stage in which these matters can be discussed in a reasonable way and that, before too long, we shall have another Act on the statute book in the name of the hon. Member for Newport, East.
§ Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) made a considered and helpful speech. I assure him that we all appreciated it, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) when he reads it in Hansard.
1144 I add my congratulations to those expressed already to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East, first on being successful in the ballot for private Members' legislation and, secondly, on introducing this Bill.
To some extent, the debate has been marred by the speech of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). He knows of the Opposition's concern on a Friday when a Conservative Member makes a speech that lasts well over an hour. We are all familiar with the tactic of making a long speech on a Friday morning. If an hon. Member makes a speech of that length, going into matters in great detail, he cannot be surprised when we conclude that he is attempting to weaken or destroy the Bill under consideration. I know that the hon. Gentleman will protest at that. He said many times that he supported the Bill and that he hoped that it would receive its Second Reading and go into Committee. However, we must judge his words against his actions, which are not those of a man who wishes the Bill to be passed. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that we can properly reach that conclusion.
§ Mr. Colvin
The hon. Gentleman has, of course, appreciated my good faith in wishing to see the Bill on the statute book. The undertakings that I have given are firm. I hope that he will recognise my constructive contribution, which I admit came in a speech that went on a bit, in giving a lot of detail that it was important to cover and in setting the agenda for the Committee stage by making clear to his hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) the sort of things that we should consider in Committee. I believe that that was considerably more constructive than was the attitude of his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who came into the Chamber for a couple of minutes and then blew a gasket.
§ Mr. Davies
I shall not be drawn into a debate about the relative merits of my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was here at 9.40 am and has been present for the rest of our proceedings, so it is a little unfair of the hon. Gentleman to make that criticism. He must accept that we have a genuine criticism when hon. Members speak for an hour. We are all waiting with great interest to see which Conservative Member rises next. If it is the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), and if he makes a speech lasting an hour or an hour and a quarter, we shall draw the appropriate conclusion. If he makes such a speech, we shall know that there is a Conservative attempt to kill the Bill.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I remind the hon. Gentleman that I have tabled a Bill on this very subject, which puts me in a different position from that of other hon. Members, as I shall seek to explain later.
§ Mr. Davies
That is the tactic that I thought would be followed. Let us put it on the record that Bill No. 13 on today's Order Paper was blocked last week by the Opposition because it does not offer adequate protection to badgers. The hon. Gentleman seems to have suggested that both he and his hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside have intended to prolong the debate on this Bill, to object to it at 2.30 pm and to kill it, while hoping that his Bill will go through. He will then accuse us when we block that Bill because it is inadequate.
We are witnessing a repetition of a debate that has taken place for almost 20 years since the introduction of 1145 the first Bill to establish protection for badgers. Thar point was made by the hon. Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison), who has distanced himself today from his hon. Friends. I am grateful to him because his actions substantiate his words.
The 1973 Act to extend protection to badgers was initially considerably weakened. It was amended and compromised, and its original intent was weakened by the same voices that we have heard today. The fox hunting lobby was not prepared to see adequate protection granted in 1973.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside talked about sickening and barbaric practices. He is a member of the British Field Sports Society and I remind him of what happened in 1977. The Duke of Beaufort, the master of the Beaufort foxhounds, who was then president of the BFSS, acknowledged that during one of his days of sport he dug out and killed a complete sett of eight badgers. That was the president of the BFSS, the members of which had said in 1973 that they were fully in favour of the protection of badgers, but that they had to be allowed to conduct their legitimate activities. As a result, the landowners' loophole was introduced and it allowed members of the BFSS to dig out and kill badgers. We must judge members and supporters of the BFSS who say that they are opposed to such conduct by their actions as well as by their words. Their actions are not lily-white in that respect.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
The hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, unintentionally misleading the House. The BFSS does not accept the digging out and killing of badgers in the way that he suggests. However, for health reasons, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had to kill more than 780 badgers in 1988 and 1989. Is the hon. Gentleman after only badger baiters or anyone who kills badgers in any circumstances? He should make his position clearer.
§ Mr. Davies
I understand the hon. Gentleman's two points, and I shall try to deal with them. I shall not be drawn on the question of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is an entirely different matter which relates to the control of bovine tuberculosis. In those circumstances, I do not propose to talk about species protection.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, animals to which full protection is given can be taken under licence. In that respect, badgers are no different from any other protected animals. I am prepared to accept the hon. Gentleman's word that, at the moment, the BFSS is a law-abiding organisation which will encourage its members to follow its codes. However, I am concerned that the BFSS is prepared to put its own interests above those specified in the Bill, as it did in 1973 and as the master of the Beaufort foxhounds did in 1977. He said that what he did was perfectly legal—and it was perfectly legal because of the loophole that was driven through the Badgers Act 1973 by Members from whom we have heard today.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
It is important to clarify that issue while the hon. Gentleman is still speaking rather than through my trying to answer him later and not having a proper dialogue.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about digging out badgers under licence. Is he now saying that, whether by farmers, 1146 for construction purposes or for field sports, digging out badgers under licence should not be allowed in any circumstances?
§ Mr. Davies
The hon. Gentleman has no reason to infer that from my comments. I am deliberately explaining that the BFSS has, over the years, sought to weaken all legislation relating to the protection of badgers on the basis that it interferes with its otherwise legitimate sport. I may provoke the hon. Gentleman still further, but that is not my intention. I am sure that he is a man of his word and a man of honour, and that he will not attempt to block the Bill. If he intends to filibuster later, he will not have me as a partner. I shall be reluctant to give way to him on any further interventions.
After its exposure in 1973, the landowners' loophole was blocked in 1981 by a Government measure. However, the Government again bowed to pressure from the BESS to ensure that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 did not offer the full protection that was needed. As a result, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) introduced a private Member's Bill in 1985. The original intention of that Bill was to do what this Bill would do—to extend protection to the badger's sett.
Lo and behold, there was exactly the same orchestrated opposition as we had this morning. We were forced to weaken the Bill in Committee because of pressure from the British Field Sports Society, which wanted the right to continue to interfere with badger setts and to send terriers underground in pursuit of foxes. Badgers were then inadvertently attacked by terriers and people could use the excuse of entering terriers for the foxes to cover themselves for the illegal attacks on badgers. The result was exactly what we had prophesied would happen following the 1985 Act. People took foxes and, as the hon. Member for Keighley graphically illustrated, they used the loophole in the 1985 Act to continue to bait badgers. That loophole existed in the Act because of pressure from the British Field Sports Society. It was not prepared to have any restrictions to protect badgers placed on fox-hunting activities. This morning's discussion is a rerun of that previous debate.
As a result of the loophole, there were some shameful attacks on badgers in Brecon this year. We must place on record the courage and dedication of those who have worked under cover for the League Against Cruel Sports and put themselves in danger to expose that illegal and brutal activity. They estimate that 10,000 badgers are now killed every year in badger baiting in the northern counties of Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Chester; in Clwyd in Wales and, I am ashamed to say, in my county of Mid Glamorgan, as well as in South and West Glamorgan. That is why the Bill must be given a Second Reading.
I hope that the hon. Member for Devizes and I will be able to reach an accord in Committee. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside asked whether we vvere prepared to compromise. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East made it clear that the Bill is not a back-door method of attacking fox hunting. He said that, if it is necessary lightly to block fox earths or badger setts, amendments will have to be made to the Bill. I accept that, although I would not allow it if it were my Bill. However, my hon. Friend has made that concession and my lion. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West and I will honour it.
1147 The hon. Member for Devizes said that only main setts should be protected, and that ancillary and outlying setts should not be given full protection because that would interfere with fox hunters' actions. Will he reconsider his attitude, which would lead to loopholes similar to those in the 1985 Act?
§ Sir Charles Morrison
I did not say that. I said that if the advice that was given to me by Dr. Stephen Harris, the scientist largely responsible for the Nature Conservation Council report, was followed, the definition would exclude from the Bill badger setts consisting of three holes or fewer. Those are not main but subsidiary setts. Incidentally, I am told that only experts know precisely into which category a badger sett falls. However, if main setts were excluded, many of the problems referred to by the National Farmers Union would be overcome and the Bill would cater for problems that might arise for other legitimate country users, such as foresters and fox hunters. I also said that, in reality, although not exclusively, foxes tend to use smaller badger setts and so a reasonable distinction would be created if the definition were along the lines that I suggested. That definition was suggested to me by a scientist.
§ Mr. Davies
Of course hunted foxes will take refuge in the most convenient earth, sett or hole. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I think that he has blown a big hole in his own argument. He said that only an expert would be able to differentiate between a main sett and an ancillary sett. If that is so, how much expertise will be found in the man who is employed to go around—or who does it for his own enjoyment—blocking up earths or setts on a Friday night or a Saturday morning before a hunt? Clearly he will not be an expert, and he will block up any hole that he can find or in which he thinks a fox might take refuge.
There is another difficulty with the hon. Gentleman's argument. The problem of the definition will provide a good excuse for men accused of entering badger setts or sending terriers down them. They will say that they thought that the hole was an ancillary sett that was not being used. Only experts can tell one sort from another, so this problem will drive a loophole through the legislation. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider his position.
If it is not possible to reach compromise in Committee, will opponents of the Bill be prepared to allow it to go through unamended, or will they block it if it interferes in any way with their legitimate fox-hunting activities? If they block it, they will in effect be saying that their sport is more important than extending full protection to badgers. After that they will not be able to accuse badger diggers of being odious, barbaric, terrifying or horrifying or any of the other adjectives that we have heard from them this morning. If no compromise is possible on the Bill, will they be prepared to make this small sacrifice to protect all setts from all interference, if, indeed, this is the only way in which we can afford the badger full protection—
§ Mr. Davies
The hon. Gentleman spoke for a long time this morning. The hon. Member for Upminster has yet to speak and I am sure that he will consult his hon. Friends and provide us with the answer to my pertinent question.
1148 I can now be a little more conciliatory. Clause 4 is included in the Bill for good reason. We are advised that it contains an acceptable legal expression. The hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), who I understand is a Crown court recorder with a good legal background, gave the House the benefit of his advice earlier. It was that clause 4 provided appropriate protection.
We shall of course block the Protection of Badgers Bill because it is inadequate and will not provide the necessary protection. We have every reason to expect that the Badgers Bill will get on to the statute book, given its place in the pecking order. Questions to do with custodial sentences have already been dealt with in the Criminal Justice Bill. If there are problems about imposing further penalties, such as banning people convicted of badger baiting from the ownership of dogs, they can be dealt with in amendments which we shall welcome.
I have had personal experience of the activities of badger baiters in my constituency. The overwhelming mood there among conservationists, naturalists, environmentalists and even among people engaged in field sports is in favour of this Bill. Conservative Members have a major responsibility to allow the measure to go through unblocked and to allow it to pass through Committee—amended, perhaps, but only in such a way as will afford full protection to the badger. If they use this opportunity to defeat or compromise the Bill so as fatally to weaken it, they will weaken their own position and open the debate much wider. They will find then that the mood of tolerance for their activities will be greatly jeopardised. I hope that opponents of the Bill will take this warning seriously.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)
I have taken careful note of what the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) said. I do not react kindly to the threats that were implied in his speech. They are extremely unwise, though there is little that he can do to add to the threats that he has already made to the fox-hunting community because in recent statements he has said that it would be Labour party policy to ban fox hunting. That is certainly what has been reported in the press.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
I shall make our position clear. The document has not yet been announced, but the hon. Gentleman will know that in the event of a Labour Government being elected, the matter will be decided by a free vote in the House.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am aware that that is the official position that another member of the Labour party put forward, but the hon. Gentleman is quoted as saying something totally different.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I note what the hon. Gentleman says. However, I know the people to whom he spoke and I believe that that is what he said.
Both the hon. Members for Caerphilly and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) have shown their personal dislike of fox hunting. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West has tried by other means to block fox hunting, so there is no point in saying to me that if I compromise on the Bill I shall benefit in some other way. 1149 I know that Opposition Members are trying to destroy fox hunting and that they will do so by whatever means are available to them.
Before I speak to the Bill, I seek your assistance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Clerks in the Public Bill Office have drawn my attention to the likelihood that if the Bill receives a Second Reading my own Bill would be subsumed in it if the Chair felt that my Bill and this one were so similar that both should not proceed. I shall certainly seek at some appropriate stage to submit that my Bill is sufficiently different in its intention and in the way in which it seeks to destroy badger baiting and to control the activities of those with terriers, that both Bills should be allowed to proceed. However, my attitude to this Bill must in some way be tempered if I feel that my Bill will fall.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and I am glad that he has taken advice. The matter is hypothetical at the moment, but if the issue arises later I shall deal with it.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am grateful to you for your assistance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall raise the matter at the appropriate stage.
My hon. Friends and I do not like four aspects of the Bill. I assure the hon. Member for Caerphilly that I do not intend to speak for any longer than is absolutely necessary to speak to those four aspects.
First, the Bill is wrong because the definition of the badger sett is far too wide. I do not understand why the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who has said that he is concerned to hear opposing views, has been absent from the Chamber on almost every occasion when one of my hon. Friends who shares my views has spoken. If that is the way in which he intends to engage in dialogue in an attempt to reach a compromise, such a compromise will be extremely difficult to achieve. [Interruption.] There has just been a comment from beyond the Bar. If the hon. Member for Newham, North-West cares to return to the Chamber, I shall be happy to reply to his point.
It is difficult to understand how the Bill has got to this stage with the hon. Member for Newport, East still talking about a compromise. All those who object to the terms of the Bill have made their position abundantly clear, not only during this debate but during debates on a similar Bill presented last year by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. We went through an exhaustive process of trying to reach a compromise in Committee on that Bill, and I take badly comments about the efforts to reach that compromise. I accept that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West moved from his original position and that some of our anxieties were met. Equally, we moved from our original position, which was to oppose that Bill because it was far too widely drawn. We got quite close to a compromise, but we reached the point where the British Field Sports Society and those of us who share the interests of that society felt that for us to move any further would seriously jeopardise sporting interests in the countryside.
We were unable to move further towards a compromise, but a small movement by those supporting the Bill would have achieved an enactment of that Bill. Therefore, it is not true to suggest that we will block any Bill on this subject. It is wrong to suggest that we are not prepared to compromise. I find it sad that we should have 1150 retreated to this stage and that we now have a definition of a badger sett that is wholly unacceptable to us when we have already spent 18 months in dialogue on that issue.
§ Mr. Colvin
Will my hon. Friend join me in rejecting the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) that any compromise of the kind that I have proposed would so weaken the Bill that it would lead to the death of more badgers? That is the one thing we do not want. Is not the point that the compromises that we are seeking would strengthen rather than weaken the Bill because they would lead to more successful prosecutions? The Bill, if enacted with such compromises, would be a greater deterrent against badger digging and baiting than it would be if it were enacted unamended.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
Yes. Far from being a weaker or lesser Bill, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, my Bill would be stronger and better than this. I am sure that, when I come to that point in my argument, we shall see the merits of what I am proposing in comparison with what the Bill proposes to deal with this point. Nothing that I have heard today about the appalling behaviour of badger baiters would be less difficult to deal with under my Bill than it would be under this Bill. The convictions would hold up as strongly and the sentences that I have proposed would assist courts to deal with the matter in a way that this Bill cannot.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
That is a particularly perverse argument. It implies that the British Field Sports Society has a greater commitment to preventing cruelty to animals than do the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, which are supporting the Bill. They have all advised us that this Bill offers protection and that the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) is too full of loopholes and will allow badger digging to continue. If I am taking advice from organisations concerned with animal welfare, I have greater regard for the bodies that I have mentioned than I have for the British Field Sports Society.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I do not accept the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. I am sure that he has a greater regard for those bodies than he has for the one of which I am chairman, and that is why he is so opposed to fox hunting. However, that does not mean that I share his view. I was not suggesting that the British Field Sports Society has a greater commitment to stop badger baiting than the bodies that he mentioned, but it has as great a commitment. He must understand that it is a real threat to the continuation of fox hunting that badger baiters behave as they do. We are at least as anxious as he and his hon. Friends are to see that such behaviour is stopped. However, we want to ensure that a stop is put to it in a way that does not jeopardise the future of country sports and the countryside. That is where the hon. Gentleman and I differ, because he does not share that objective. He does not see the dangers in going down the road that he proposes, because he is looking wholly at the badger and not at the countryside as a whole.
I welcome most of the speech made by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), whose record in this matter is exemplary and whom we have to thank for the Badgers Act 1973. I greatly respect his expertise on this subject. I only stopped agreeing with him when he started 1151 making party political comments about who was and who was not like a badger. The hon Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen)—a close personal friend—has, unfortunately, just left the Chamber. In terms of looks, he is probably the most like a badger of any hon. Gentleman, and he also has some of their more lovable qualities. The way in which the hon. Member for Wentworth was making comparisons with my hon. Friends was not quite as friendly as my approach. I think that I was able to make a more friendly comparison.
All that the hon. Member for Wentworth said about the need for conservation of the countryside and the role that country sports play in it was profoundly welcome to me. We all share a love of the countryside, including hedgerows, copses and all that makes up the old, traditional English countryside, which has been partly destroyed by modern farming practices in a way that is at least as damaging to field sports interests as it is to the general public's wish to see a lovely countryside in their land.
It would seem that there is common ground that we should try to preserve country sports, which play such a large part in the conservation of the countryside, as enjoyed by badgers as well as humans. Anything that damages the future of country sports will have a side effect that is not acknowledged by those who put forward suggestions that would damage the habitats that it is their objective to protect. That is the danger behind the extremely wide definition of badger sett. I remind the House that the Bill provides that a badger sett meansany structure or place occupied or used by a badger for shelter or protection.I have the greatest respect for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), including his legal expertise. However, I do not believe that his interpretation of the clause is correct. Certainly an argument could be presented against it. If I were to argue the matter in court, I would say that had the House been intending to say that a badger sett meant only somewhere which was occupied by a badger at that time, it would not have addedor used by a badger".If "any structure or place" is being used by a badger, it is not a full-time sett where the badger is living. It is a place in which he happens to be, or has been in recently, or somewhere which he uses. I do not think that the interpretation placed upon the clause by my hon. and learned Friend is an accurate one.
If we can all agree that what we want to preserve is a badger sett that at that moment is being used by a badger, it would do no harm to add "currently" or some such word. I do not wish to use the Second Reading as an opportunity to do the work of the Committee that will be called on to examine it. However, if we can agree that we are considering a badger sett that is the home of a badger at the time, and provided that the definition is limited to a badger's sett and not the home of another creature which the badger happens to be using temporarily, such as a foxes' earth or a rabbit warren, I believe that we shall be able to come to an agreement on what a badger sett is. We can then agree that the protection afforded by the Bill should be given to that. That goes to the core of the main 1152 disagreement between those who promote the Bill and those who support mine and see the Bill that is before us as a threat to the future of country sport.
§ Mr. Humphrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)
May I put a consideration to my hon. Friend which is troubling me? I have always abhorred badger baiting, and I once led a delegation against it to the Home Secretary. It is an evil practise and we all want to see the fiends who practice it punished extremely heavily. I wonder, however, whether the Bill will help us. As I read it, it will not protect genuine countryside interests. If it is to be enacted in its present form, I wonder whether I can give it the wholehearted support that I should otherwise like to extend to it. Laudable as it is to try to punish badger baiters, I do not think that the Bill protects legitimate countryside pursuits.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that intervention. His concern gives him every reason to support the Bill that I have tabled. It seeks to achieve a balance between the interests to which he has referred and the Bill before us, which I consider to be too narrowly focused and capable of doing unintentional harm that would not, in the long term, benefit the badger or anything else. That is important and that is why the Bill, in its present form, is not acceptable. I am saying not that it should be refused a Second Reading but that it is unacceptable as it stands. That answers the hon. Member for Caerphilly. At a later stage, both sides must be prepared to move towards a central position, in order that the Bill may progress. I should like to see a law passed to deal with this important matter. Even more, I should like to see my Bill passed. However, I am prepared to drop my Bill, if adequate amendments are made to the Badgers Bill.
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
Does that mean that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to oppose the Badgers Bill today? If not, is he aware that the rules of the House clearly dictate that his Bill, which shares similar objectives, would automatically be ruled out?
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I have no intention of voting against the Badgers Bill today. As to the hon. Gentleman's second point, I raised that aspect with Mr. Deputy Speaker before the hon. Gentleman entered the Chamber, and I await a ruling at the appropriate moment. I am aware of the danger that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I hope that I can persuade the Chair that it will not be necessary to drop my Bill, because it is not adequately similar—even though its objectives are the same as those of the Badgers Bill.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am sure that the Chair considers each Bill on its merits, and I cannot argue for the hon. Gentleman's Bills.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) gave full assurances that he is prepared to reach a compromise along the lines of that suggested by the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). In case the hon. Gentleman has any residual doubts, I repeat that I, too, will compromise. I shall not do so willingly, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East advises compromise, I shall adopt that course without reservation.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reassurance, which should make life easier for all of us at a later stage. However, similar sentiments were expressed to me last year, in connection with the Bill of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, but we were unable to arrive at a form of words on which we could agree. There may be a willingness to compromise, but, with the best will in the world, we might be unable to agree a formula to achieve it. There is nothing we can do about that until the Committee stage. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman in return that I, too, am willing to compromise. We have moved a substantial way from the original position that I adopted last year, and I am prepared to consider moving as far as I possibly can—provided that legitimate countryside pursuits are preserved and unnecessary dangers are not created in an attempt to reach an overkill in terms of badger protection.
It is not only field sports interests that are threatened by the existing definition of a badger sett or by that used in the Bill. I received a letter from the National Farmers Union's parliamentary adviser, which I believe was sent to several Back Benchers, which sets out five reasons why the farming community remains concerned about the Bill.
Given that there have been substantial consultations with most of the bodies involved, it is surprising that the NFU should remain so unhappy. Its first concern is that a farmer or farm worker who inadvertently damages a sett as an incidental consequence of a farm operation, such as ploughing, might be found guilty of a serious offence. That is a real fear because of the way in which the Bill is phrased at present with the use of the word "unavoidable". I do not want to waste the time of the House, but I wish to put down a marker. That word is not adequate to cover someone who inadvertently does damage to a badger sett. Secondly, the NFU is extremely anxious because, especially in the south-west of the country, a lot of damage is done by badgers digging under fields that need to be cultivated. Such diggings can be inadvertently damaged by tractors going over them or can be disturbed by ploughing, and so on. Unfortunately, the driver might be liable to a criminal charge under the Bill as it stands.
The hon. Member for Newport, East shakes his head, but that could happen, because "unavoidable" and "inadvertent" are different things. One can accidentally do something that one could have avoided in different circumstances. I do not want hundreds of people who work in the countryside to be brought to court for doing something that they had no intention of doing, but which, in some circumstances, was arguably avoidable.
Thirdly, because of the damage done under fields, a lot of farm livestock, especially in the south-west of the country, can break legs and ankles and be hurt or damaged by falling into setts. Therefore, farmers have to be allowed, within reason, to move the badgers from a place where they are doing a great deal of damage to livestock and to put them somewhere better.
Mercifully, in many ways, rabbits are coming back into our countryside, but the damage done to crops by rabbits also causes great concern to the NFU. The control of rabbits would be hampered if the Bill were passed in its present form.
Finally, the NFU does not want a farmer to be forced to apply for a licence in case one of these accidents happens every time he has a badger sett anywhere on his land, as it would lead to a lot of unnecessary red tape, at 1154 a time when, as I am sure the hon. Member for Newport, East is aware, the farming community is already under enormous pressure.
For those reasons, I do not believe that the badger sett is acceptably defined in the Bill. We must look for a tighter definition before the Bill can be acceptable to a great many hon. Members with countryside interests.
There is substantial failing in the adequacy of the defence set out in new section 8(4) of the 1973 Act which states:A person shall not be guilty of an offence under"—various sections of the Bill—if he shows that his action was unavoidable and was an incidental result of a lawful action.That continues from what I was saying. The badger sett is so widely defined that people are vulnerable of being accused of interfering with a sett when they move a drain, dig out a fox's earth or cultivate over some other hole in the ground which a badger may have used at some stage but which is not, by any understandable definition, a sett. If such a person has to argue as his defence that his action was both unavoidable and the incidental result of a lawful action, he may have some considerable difficulties in establishing that what he did was unavoidable.
I do not think that the defences set out in the Bill are adequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) gave the example of the channel tunnel, which caused some hilarity, possibly because of the size of the project, but what he said was valid. The answer that there is a defence in new section 9(1)(h) of the 1973 Act was incorrect as it does not cover tunnelling for roadway purposes, which will have to be considered at a later stage because a vast amount of construction work is going on throughout the country, which is a smaller version of digging tunnels like the channel tunnel, but will certainly be put in jeopardy because of the way in which the Bill is drafted.
The third and most worrying aspect of the Bill is the wideness of the definition of the new offence of disturbing a badger in a badger sett. Consider the meaning of the word "disturb". It is not acceptable that any badger that is inconvenienced by what is going on around his sett can look to the protection of the criminal law to take someone to court for disturbing him. That protection is much wider than that given not only to any other animal but to most human beings.
We cannot accept the idea that anything that disturbs a badger sett and the badger in it constitutes a criminal offence, particularly when we consider the type of problems with which badger protection groups say that they deal. They mention problems such as people leasing paper bags near the entrance to a badger sett and other minor infringements of proper country practice with which I certainly disagree, but which should not leave people open to criminal charges on the ground that their action disturbed a badger. Arguably, driving a truck near a badger sett might disturb a badger. Anything might disturb a badger. So we must tighten up the definition of what will be a serious new criminal offence and will take up a great deal of court time.
I have no doubt that when this new law is passed, badger protection groups will be anxious to see it properly and fully implemented. So will I, provided that it is in the right terms. But I cannot accept that we should put into the criminal law something as trivial as merely disturbing a 1155 badger. The disturbance must be serious and direct and it must cause harm to the badger before I accept that it should be a matter for a criminal action.
The fourth and final reason why I object to the Bill in its present form is that, despite what the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, my Bill is much better. It gives much clearer guidance on what is an illegal act—digging out a badger for the purpose of baiting it. All the vague definitions in this Bill open up the possibility of innocent people being convicted of a new and serious criminal offence. I am sure that Opposition Members are as anxious as I am to ensure that that risk is minimised. If my Bill were adopted, there would be no fear of wrongful conviction, yet the badger would be heavily protected.
If badger baiters go to a sett on someone's land with a net, dogs or enough spades to dig a badger out of his lower chambers, it is reasonably clear that they are there to dig out an animal. I accept that there have been cases in which badger baiters have got away with saying that they went there to dig for a fox. They have been able to do so only because, as the law stands, there is no one against whom the accused's word can be tested. If the House accepted the wording of my Bill, the farming occupier of the land would be approached by the person who caught the people with spades, terriers and nets. He would be asked whether those people had permission to be on his land for the purpose of digging.
It would be extraordinarily foolish for the occupier to say that he had given that permission and that the men were clearly there to dig for badgers, because that would make him a guilty accessory to the fact. No occupier of the land would admit to giving permission when what those people were doing was clearly illegal. Indeed, what motive would the owner have for giving permission? Farmers are not badger baiters. In most, if not all, cases in which badger baiters have been detected and convicted, they were on other people's land without permission. Therefore, my Bill gives a good new level of safeguard against people getting away with the activities that they have got away with, in so far as they have. It is a valuable new shield against the crime with which we are dealing.
The hon. Member for Wentworth said that an awful lot of badger baiting happens near urban areas. So it does. Therefore, it is important that we do not apply a blanket law across the whole country which, as I said earlier, would be damaging to the countryside, in order to catch people who in most cases inhabit or work in areas around large cities. Again, my Bill focuses more tightly on the people whom we seek to catch and is a better way of properly convicting them than what is proposed today.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North made the point for me when he said that 55 per cent. is an extremely good conviction rate for almost any crime that comes before the courts. I would make the further point that some of those who are acquitted may not have been guilty. I accept, nevertheless, that some of those who are acquitted probably managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the court, due to their cock-and-bull story having been accepted.
I listened with interest to the stories related by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) about people shooting and freezing foxes, and doing other appalling things. I do not believe, however, that that 1156 happens very often. There is the extraordinary crook in every society who tries out something different, but I do not think that many people have taken dead foxes with them in order to pretend that they were going after foxes when they were clearly digging for badgers. That is inconceivable.
I believe that my Bill would provide better protection for the badger. It also deals with sentencing. Both those provisions in my Bill have been taken up elsewhere, but they are not framed in quite the same way. Therefore, I have not yet been able to satisfy myself that they would achieve what I want to achieve, which is that the penalties provided for in my Bill should apply specifically to badgers. The inclusion of a penalty specifically for badger baiting in a Bill that deals specifically with badger protection would be far better than to tag penalties on to a Criminal Justice Bill that deals with a wide range of other matters. People may not be aware that such a penalty is included in the Criminal Justice Bill. The Minister has already pointed out that the intention of the Criminal Justice Bill will be to try to keep people out of prison and that, therefore, it will not be the most appropriate place in which to include a new prison sentence for an existing offence.
We also have to guard against the minor offences included in the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Newport, East suddenly carrying prison sentences. I do not take the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North that the court's discretion can be relied upon. Minor offences ought not to attract penalties that are entirely out of line with the severity of the offence concerned.
That sums up my opposition to the Bill in its present form. I have no intention of blocking it or trying to talk it out. Therefore, I intend to sit down shortly.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
The hon. Gentleman still has an hour, so perhaps he will contain his impatience for a few more moments.
It is important that the House should recognise that hon. Members who opposed last year's Bill and who oppose this one do so because we believe that they would damage the countryside, the environment and sporting and farming interests. We must agree a form of words that overcomes those problems before we reach the heart of the matter on which we wholly agree—I have not heard one dissenting voice since the matter was first raised in the House—which is that badger baiting is an evil pastime which must be stopped.
§ Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)
I am grateful for this opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate. I have been sitting here since 9.40. After listening to the debate for an hour, I felt that I ought to intervene. The opportunity to make contributions to the debate from this side of the Chamber have been distressingly scarce since then. Therefore, I shall curtail my remarks.
I came to the debate not as an expert but as one who feels deeply about the plight of the badger. As the most recent entrant to the House among those hon. Members who are present today, I am perhaps the closest to being an ordinary member of the public whom we represent. In 1157 the main, they are concerned about the conservation of the countryside and wildlife. Most members of the public are decent and humanitarian in spirit.
Much has been said by Conservative Members about badger protection being well provided for. There has also been the ancillary argument about pest control.
The argument that protection is adequately provided for is based on the grounds of healthy badger population statistics and of adequate provision in law to protect them. The argument on population statistics is not proven. Even if statistics can be produced to show a healthy overall badger population, that surely cannot be cited as an argument against the protection of weak pockets of badger population. I understand that the aim of the Bill is to protect those weak pockets of the badger population.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) cited the statistics on the destruction of badger setts, which are demonstrably proven. That destruction is increasing at a rate which, if extrapolated, must cause grave concern. The presumption, prima facie, must be that the law must be strengthened to increase protection in support of those proven statistics as against the unproven statistics on badger population.
As for the argument that there is adequate provision in law, the purpose of the Bill is to close loopholes in the law whereby sadists—that is the only word for them—can inflict grievous suffering on badgers and get away with it.
As for the ancillary argument, I appeal to Conservative Members to distinguish between the inconvenience that might be caused by the Bill and the impossibility of pest control. I ask them, please, to keep a sense of proportion. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) adequately drew attention to the flaws in the argument for pest control by hunting and field sports.
I hope that the spirit of conciliation and compromise, which was evident early in the debate and which gave me some optimism for the passage of the Bill, is carried into Committee and that no attempts will be made in Committee to weaken the effectiveness of a Bill which has wide support in the House and in the country.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
We have had an interesting debate. It has been rather bumpy at times, and certainly the way in which it developed led to all sorts of uncertainties.
I begin by referring to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) about Donald Coleman. Donald's name still appears on the Bill. Every hon. Member will agree that he would have loved to be here today because of his affection for the badger.
The badger is held in high esteem by the British people. I think that the badger is British. I am sure every hon. Member will have read "The Wind in the Willows", in which Kenneth Grahame portrayed Mr. Badger as lovable and wise. I recall that Mr. Badger was very proud of his dwelling and had a little boot scraper outside the front door. He was portrayed as a sane animal among a lot of unreliable animals in the wild wood. That illustrates our affection for badgers.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East introduced the Bill. He is held in high esteem in the House and his steering of the Bill is 1158 commendable. I am sure that his constituents will carefully note the professional, honourable way in which he has dealt with it.
The aim of the Bill is to protect badger setts. The discussions so far make me feel that it is a reasonable, sensible Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East, I believe that there will be an opportunity to deal with any worries and to come up with a compromise. A Bill such as this must be based on compromise because there are conflicting interests.
§ Mr. Colvin
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said—it is thoroughly in character with many of the Opposition's contributions to the debate. Getting the Bill to Committee, Report and Third Reading in the House of Commons is one thing, but the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) must realise that he will have to do a lot of work in the other place as well because there will be similar hurdles there. Those who oppose the Bill there may not be as constructive as hon. Members here. The Bill will have a long passage.
§ Mr. Randall
There will be difficulties, but with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East at the helm, and given his attitude to the problems that the Bill is bound to encounter, the Bill will be successful in another place. If anyone can do it, my hon. Friend can.
Our affection for the badger is reflected in the amount of legislation over the years. The Protection of Animals Act 1911 provided some help, but it was restricted to certain types of baiting. The Badgers Act 1973 introduced measures against badger digging—that is the important part—and against injuring or wilful killing of badgers and cruel treatment. The aim of the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), was to secure convictions—an important point. It shifted the onus of proof on to those who claim that they are fox hunting.
The existing legislation has deficiencies. The Bill will make it easier to convict those whom my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) called sadists. As has been said, only about 50 per cent. of offenders filtered by the Crown prosecution service are charged, let alone convicted. That is because the evidence that is needed for a conviction is too complex. In addition, the fox and the badger may reside in the same hole and, in the past, terrier men and diggers have been able to swear until they were blue in the face that they were after the fox, which is legitimate and within the law. A conviction was not possible unless the offender was caught red-handed or with the badger or a bit of the badger.
Although I do not want to go into the details, because I wish to be as expeditious as possible. Although I am not sure of the exact figures, I believe that between 9,000 and 10,000 badgers are killed in this country each year out of a population of about 200,000. The badger population is quite large and I do not think that there is any danger of the badger becoming extinct, but those figures give an idea of the level of cruelty and violence that is perpetrated against badgers.
§ Mr. Hardy
My hon. Friend may be right to say that badgers are not in any danger of becoming extinct, but they face a serious risk in many parts of England where their population is not robust. In addition to all the other 1159 threats to the badger's survival, digging in those areas means that the badger becomes sparse locally and may even become extinct. That point needs to be borne in mind.
§ Mr. Randall
My hon. Friend, who is knowledgable about these matters, is quite right. If one looks at the maps of badger distribution, one can see the patchiness of the badger population.
At the heart of the Bill is the need to tackle the problems of badger baiting and badger digging and the need to be able to get convictions more readily for those people whose behaviour is so grossly unacceptable to, I hope, all hon. Members. The major problem that is encountered by the authorities when bringing those cruel people to book is the evidential requirement and the complexity of the evidence that is required under the current legislation. The provisions are so stringent that the Badgers Act 1973 is rendered less operable than hon. Members of all parties would like. It is exceedingly difficult for the courts to convict unless the perpetrators are caught red-handed or are in possession of something that can be classed as firm evidence. In many cases, the evidence is under the ground, in a sett, and is impossible to get at.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is some danger of our getting into a muddle over whether we are trying to stop badgers dying or to stop the bestial behaviour of the badger baiters? The greatest dangers to badgers are the motor car and, as I said earlier, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The House cannot preserve the badger's life indefinitely with a Bill such as this. We are trying to stop the badger baiters. Like my hon. Friends who have expressed a similar view today, I am concerned that we should ensure that that is what we do without interfering with all the other aspects of country life that are legitimate and beneficial.
§ Mr. Randall
We are talking about preventing unacceptable levels of cruelty and pain. In my view, we must sometimes have controls on certain animals. There is a licensing arrangement to provide that and it can be carried out in a humane and controlled fashion. At the heart of the Bill is our wish to get at those people whose behaviour is uncivilised and unacceptable.
I am delighted that the Bill would make convictions relatively simple to obtain. The Bill is essentially about damage to setts, which, as we all know, are the habitat of the badger. One can envisage the way in which a conviction might be obtained if a man was near a sett with a car or a van, a couple of terriers and a spade. All he has to do is to dig into the sett. The time that he spends on that could be from 30 minutes to five or six hours. He listens and digs, but in the meantime, someone has an opportunity to identify him and to call the police. That is relatively simple when compared with existing legislation.
There are serious consequences from currently having no sett protection. Appendix A of a survey produced by the National Federation of Badger Groups contains statistics of a review of 179 incidents of serious disturbance. The incidents are categorised and the top category was excessive sett blocking, which occurred in 66 of the 179 incidents. The second was digging out with hand implements for badger and fox in 44 cases. The third was destruction by mechanical equipment in 30 cases, and there were 15 cases of severe blocking by other parties. 1160 There were also instances with chemicals, gases, snares and so on. It is clear that blocking, digging out and damage by mechanical equipment are the greatest causes of disturbance.
Appendix A also shows that the perpetrators—a word that I do not like—of the 179 cases were fox hunts in 67 cases, farmers in 25 cases, terrier men in 18 cases and smaller groups such as gamekeepers and local authorities in the remaining cases. Blocking, which is the major cause of disturbance, is carried out mainly by foxhounds, terrier men and farmers. That is the nature of the problem according to those figures.
§ Mr. Colvin
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about fox hunts, but I am not clear about a point in the Bill of which his remarks have reminded me. A hunt is not entitled to put a terrier into a badger's sett. What about hounds marking at a sett? It is not clear from anything that has been said this morning, either by the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) or by the hon. Gentleman, whether hounds marking at a sett would be an indictable offence or whether there would be a defence for that. It would be helpful if a defence for that activity could be encompassed in the Bill.
§ Mr. Randall
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East should answer that. My inclination would be to say no. It is a matter for the Committee, and I expect that it will be fully debated and clarified and that the Bill will be amended. My feeling is that it would not be an offence.
We have perceived the pressure applied by the fox hunting lobby. It is opposed to a total restriction on tampering or blocking because that would mean that it would be unable to carry out its sport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East made a profound and impressive statement about the need for compromise. He said that the Bill was not a back-door way to get at the fox hunters. He clearly separated them from badger baiters. We now accept that there is a need for light stopping-up of setts to accommodate fox hunting groups.
Some of the people with whom I have spoken believe that the voluntary code of practice introduced by the Masters of Fox Hounds Association does not and could not work, and that a stronger measure is necessary. What do the Government feel should be done? It has been suggested that a new Department of the Environment document or order could be introduced to define how the fox hunting establishment should carry out its affairs. Alternatively, a code of practice could be enshrined in the Bill. The present code of practice certainly commands very little support.
Several hon. Members have expressed concern about how people will know whether a hole in the ground is a badger sett or simply a hole. Badger setts can be very large with many entrances and exits, and parts of the setts are used only during certain periods of the year, particularly in the breeding season when cubs and sows are in the setts together. I was brought up in a district with many badger setts. They are easily distinguishable, especially the larger ones, and are generally fairly well known by the local people. It is easy to envisage the risks to innocent people mentioned by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). Somebody with no bad intentions could damage a sett with a shovel, thinking that the hole 1161 was not a badger sett. Such matters will have to be dealt with by the courts and we should not want to convict somebody for mistakenly damaging a badger sett.
§ Mr. Randall
I cannot give way as I am running out of time and am nearing the end of my speech.
If someone is equivocal about whether a hole in the ground is a sett, I would expect that person to gibe the benefit of the doubt to the badger and, if a fox had gone down the hole, to leave it in there for fear of damaging the sett.
Accidents happen in the countryside, particularly involving farmers and forestry staff. It is easy to drive a truck or heavy vehicle carrying trees over a sett and damage it. I should not wish such an accident to result in people being sent to court. I should be interested to hear the Minister of State's views. It would be unacceptable because court procedures can be a painful experience.
I served on the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill and was pleased that we persuaded the Government to increase the penalties and toughen up parts of the Badgers Act 1973. I also share the Minister of State's reservations about introducing more custodial sentences when we are trying to reduce their number. The Minister has tabled amendments on the subject and I hope that she will say a word about them.
The confiscation of dogs and the disqualification of certain people from owning them were discussed earlier. Such moves might act as a severe deterrent for the really difficult people, some of whom regard a fine as a subscription—it does not make them bat an eyelid. Tying them down in this way might be a more effective deterrent. What is the Government's view on that?
The Labour party welcomes the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East on his terrific enterprise in bringing it before us. We believe that it will receive widespread support in the country. As a practical, realistic and sensible Bill, it will certainly make easier convictions for wicked, irresponsible and cruel acts against badgers. The badger, which is cherished and loved by many British and European people, will suffer less abuse. I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading today and makes good progress here and in another place. We shall be voting for it.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)
I join all those who have congratulated the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on bringing in the Bill and on initiating the interesting debate that we have had on it. I add my name to those who have mentioned Donald Coleman. Had he been here, I am sure that he would have wanted to join us. We are sad that he cannot be, but perhaps he is with us in spirit.
Apart from my speech and that of the hon. Member for Newport, East, there have been 10 speeches, all of them unanimous in their condemnation of the horrific crime of badger baiting. None of us has any difficulty in agreeing with that condemnation. Mine is in no sense a summing-up speech; it is an opportunity to set out and comment on the badger's position in law and to set out the Government's stance on the Bill.
I think that it was the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) who told us that the badger is one of our favourite 1162 wild animals. Throughout childhood, parenthood and—in my case—grandmotherhood one knows from talking to small children the pleasure that we all derive from wild animals in this country. We are proud of our wildlife, of which badgers are an important part.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) pointed out the differences in badger numbers in different parts of the country. They are abundant in some parts, less so in others. They are, as he rightly said, sociable animals. They live in large family groups, often in a main sett that has various annexes, subsidiary setts and outlying setts attached to it. There are even some humans who have similar living arrangements.
The central point of the Bill is the protection of these setts. We heard from the hon. Member for Newport, East about the problem of some of them being disturbed arid attacked by those who want to obtain badgers merely to inflict cruelty on them. Both I and the Government find that disgraceful. The fate of the badger is to be severely wounded or disabled. The unfortunate animal is then pitted against a terrier. Nobody can be left in any doubt that the House unreservedly abhors such behaviour, which cannot remotely be considered a sport. Sporting people condemn badger baiting as vociferously as anyone, as has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and other hon. Members.
There is much legislation making badger baiting an offence. The Protection of Animals Act 1911 forbids the fighting or baiting of any animal and the maximum penalty for an offence is a fine at level 5, which is £2,000, or six months' imprisonment or both. The Criminal Justice Bill seeks to uprate the standard scale and to increase a level 5 fine to a new maximum of £5,000. That is a substantial increase.
The Badgers Act 1973, which has been mentioned, makes it an offence to kill, injure or take a badger or to attempt to do so, or to ill treat or dig for one except under licence or in circumstances defined in the Act. The maximum penalty is also a level 5 fine, and I reiterate that that is to be increased to £5,000. The Act was strengthened by the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985 which reversed the burden of proof so that, unless he can show otherwise, a defendant is presumed to have committed an offence under the Badgers Act.
In addition, the badger is protected by the general prohibition in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 on the taking or killing of any wild animal by certain specified methods. That offence also attracts the maximum penalty of a level 5 fine. All that legislation means that badgers receive considerable protection in law. As the badger is an unendangered wild animal, the level of protection afforded to them is probably unique.
Following an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Warley West (Mr. Archer) and coupled in Committee with the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has tabled an amendment to enable courts to impose sentences of up to six months' imprisonment for offences under sections 1 and 2 of the Badgers Act. Those offences are of taking, injuring or killing badgers, causing cruelty to them or digging for them.
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) said that the confiscation of vehicles would be a good idea. The 1163 Criminal Justice Act 1988 extended to offences under the Badgers Act the powers of the Criminal Courts Act 1973. A court may confiscate any property used in the commission of a criminal offence. If the court took the view that a person convicted of a criminal offence under the Badgers Act had used a vehicle in the commission of that offence, it could order the confiscation of the vehicle. That is a tough power and magistrates are well aware of it. I hope that the hon. Member for Wentworth will be happy with that information.
§ Mr. Colvin
What about my suggestion about the confiscation of dogs owned by those convicted for digging for badgers and badger baiting and a prohibition on such people owning dogs in future?
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I am not 100 per cent. certain of the law on that. I shall write to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), who raised a similar issue.
General legislation and the amendment that we have introduced will put the level of imprisonment for offences under the Badgers Act for cruelty to badgers exactly on a par with sentences that can be imposed under the Protection of Animals Act for other offences of cruelty to animals. I am sure that this increase in penalties under the Badgers Act is supported by the majority of hon. Members.
We are debating a Bill which would amend the Badgers Act further to include within its scope not only the badger but the badger's sett. As the hon. Member for Newport, East pointed out, section (2C) of the Badgers Act makes it illegal to dig for badgers. However, as the House has heard in powerful speeches from several hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, since badgers and foxes often live in each other's company, those interfering with badger setts know that they can argue that they were doing so to catch foxes, which are not protected in the same way as badgers. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) mentioned this in his interesting speech.
This is where the complication comes, for not only do badgers and foxes live close to each other but badgers often have a number of setts that are used intermittently. Equally, those who conduct fox hunting believe that it is necessary to stop up the entrances to badger setts so that they can prevent foxes from using the setts as a means of escape. Further legal protection of badger setts could thus impinge upon the pursuit of fox hunting.
Because of this aspect, the Government take a neutral stance towards the Bill. Our position has always been, and I am sure that it will continue to be, that, while we welcome measures that would prevent badger baiting and cruelty to badgers, we shall remain strictly neutral on measures that 1164 might affect the lawful pursuit of field sports. We feel that hon. Members should be wholly free to follow their own conscience on voting on such matters.
Hon. Members have spoken of the large amounts of correspondence that they have received. It was interesting to hear that the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), making one of his first speeches, as he has only recently joined us, had received many letters from his constituents. It seems that there is no question but that the British public are still interested in and wish to pursue this matter, and to ensure that the House takes up the issue and does so seriously. Although the Government have taken a neutral stance, we are anxious to pursue the matter further because of the interest taken in it by our constituents.
One of the achievements of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) last year was that a great deal of good progress was made in the Committee considering his Bill, by general accord and by compromise, to produce formulae for the improved protection of badger setts. That is shown by the way that parts of that Bill are similar to the two main thrusts of this Bill. The Bill that is to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster also has similar points, although he has clearly and ably set out his view. I am certain that, were the Bill before us to go into Committee, he would wish to be a member of that Standing Committee so that he could argue his points in that forum.
As I have said, the Government are neutral on this, as they are on any Bill that involves field sports. We are also keen that the process that was started last year, of trying to find ways to protect badger setts, should continue. I think that that will help my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, who made such a powerful speech this morning. The agreement that has already developed clearly chimes with the views of the public. As I have said, we have received many letters that confirm that view. I am encouraged by what has been said today and I hope that the common ground—
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
I am relatively new to the debate, but, like many other hon. Members, I shall be in my place if there is a Division on the Second Reading. Am I right in saying that many hunts make it plain that the digging of foxes should not be used as an excuse by those who are after badgers to bait them? That is one of the ways by which those who want to protect official field sports can help the promoters of the Bill. In that way we can achieve most of the aims that lie behind the Bill, without any accompanying threats.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I am sure that the House will have noted my hon. Friend's important intervention. I hope that the common ground that has been identified on both sides of the House can be built on to produce a Bill that will receive the wholehearted support of the entire House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).