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Furious anti hunt campaigners
denounce amended Hunting Bill


THE GOVERNMENT’S Hunting Bill has been roundly denounced now that it has finished its Select Committee Report stage and has emerged as a vastly different – and more confusing – Bill than when it was passed by the Houses of Parliament late last year.

"Alun Michael’s Hunting Bill has brought the Parliamentary process into disrepute", says Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Richard Burge today. In an attack on the Rural Affairs Minister, following the conclusion of the Bill’s committee stage, the Alliance accuses Alun Michael of:

l deliberately producing a ‘Trojan horse’ Bill driven by prejudice and cynicism rather than by ‘principle’ and ‘evidence’

l rigging the Bill’s central definitions to load the dice against hunting

l pre-emptively outlawing certain forms of hunting while consistently failing to produce evidence to justify his decision

l playing fast and loose with the balance of the evidence established his own public hearings

l reversing the burden of proof by requiring hunting, rather than its detractors, to prove its case

l pre-judging the issue before embarking on his consultation and public hearings - the conclusions of which he has consistently flouted

l bringing the Parliamentary process into disrepute by supporting amendments which contradict his own Bill

Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Richard Burge said: "Throughout the committee stage the Minister has colluded with his backbenchers to subvert this Bill into a travesty of fairness. The last few weeks have been a chronicle of deceit from a Minister who clearly does not understand animal welfare issues, but is an expert in political expediency".

Hunting Bill – Review of Committee Stage

l Alun Michael has consistently failed to define the ‘incontrovertible’ evidence of cruelty which he claimed as justification for outlawing both deer hunting and competition coursing.

The Minister’s attempt to use the work of a leading scientist to back his claims about deer hunting have lead to him being branded ‘scientifically illiterate’ by Professor Patrick Bateson, who carried out the work.

l Those forms of hunting which are allowed to apply for a license will have to pass a ‘utility’ test defined solely as pest control. None of the environmental, economic or social benefits of hunting can be considered in support of an application, in contradiction of the ‘Rio Declaration’. Nor can hunting be judged for what it is – a tool for managing sustainable populations of quarry species at a level which is acceptable to local farmers and land managers.

l Applicants will also have to prove that hunting would ‘cause significantly less pain, suffering or distress’ than other methods of pest control. In the absence of any conclusive scientific research in this area this test poses an almost unique reverse burden of proof, which will effectively prohibit all of those activities which can still be the subject of licence applications.

l Despite the protestations of the Minister, and an election manifesto commitment to the contrary, the Bill will have a significant impact on shooting sports. The complete prohibition of terrierwork will have a devastating impact on vermin control since gamekeepers use terriers to kill nearly half the 70-80,000 foxes culled on shoots annually. Any shoot with more than three dogs which flushes deer, foxes or hares - for instance rough shoots with more than three dogs where hares are shot, or even flushed without being shot - would also come within the remit of the Bill. The Bill also sets a precedent for future regulation of all fieldsports, based on the twin tests of ‘utility’ and ‘least suffering’, which poses a serious and real threat of restriction and prohibition.

l The Hunting Bill raises questions about the legitimacy of consultation, the use of public funds and ministerial responsibility for legislation. Briefings to journalists before the initiation of the six month consultation period, which concluded with three days of public hearings at Portcullis House, accurately predicted the shape of the Bill and its passage through committee. If the Minister had already decided the shape of the Hunting Bill prior to the consultation process and if, as reported, it was for him never a question of ‘if’ hunting should be banned but ‘how’ it should be banned, the public purse has paid a heavy price for the Minister’s duplicity. Alun Michael also voted for an amendment to his own Bill, an event so rare that researchers in the Commons Library have been unable to find any other example.

There were many areas of concern expressed during the Committee Stage debate on the Hunting Bill. One major fear is that innocent dog walkers could fall foul of the law if their dog chases a wild animal. Due to the reversal of the burden of proof under the terms of the Bill, the owner and dog would be presumed ‘guilty’ and it would be down to the dog owner to prove that their dog was not hunting. Clearly this is a lesson not learned by Ministers of MPs since the fiasco of the Dangerous Dogs Act.

During the course of the Committee proceedings, Labour MP Rob Marris attempted to push an amendment that would have guillotined applications for hunt licenses by local hunts. This effectively meant that if applications had not been processed within 12 months then those who had not been processed would have to stop hunting. The amendment was rounded on as vindictive and was withdrawn of research and areas of hunting that are currently 'grey'.

According the Countryside Alliance observers, in an ill tempered finale Alun Michael made "snide comments" about the "hunting community, Countryside Alliance and the Conservatives" as well as suggesting that those whose jobs are lost could always go to a local job centre for help.

In a surprise move, vehement anti-hunt left-wing Labour MP Tony Banks favoured a compensation package for those whose jobs would be lost as a result of this Bill.

Meanwhile, the RSPCA has reversed its opposition to the Hunting Bill, saying that it had been "significantly strengthened" by MPs during its committee stage and was now tougher than any previous attempt at legislation.

The charity initially opposed the Bill, saying that it did not go far enough in banning foxhunting. The Bill stipulated that hunts could still go ahead if they could be justified under because of their "utility", in terms of jobs, culture and pest control, and if they were less cruel than other ways of killing foxes.

The RSPCA, which has long campaigned for an outright ban, said that many hunts would be allowed to continue.

The Bill has been amended so that the hunts can be justified only on the ground of pest control. The burden of proof has also been changed, so that the hunts must prove the need for pest control, and that hunting is the least cruel method; previously it was for the licensers to prove that there was no need and that it was cruel.