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No criminal record for illegal hunters

ANY HUNT enthusiast found guilty of breaking the hunting ban laws will avoid a criminal record, police have disclosed.

This was welcome news for hunt supporters after they failed to clear the first hurdle in their legal challenge to the ban in the High Court when the Court ruled that the Parliament Act of 1949 that was used to force the Hunting Act onto the statute books was legal. An appeal hearing is to take place on February 8 before the country’s most senior judge, Lord Woolf, QC, the Lord Chief Justice.

In guidance to police forces Nigel Yeo, the assistant chief constable of Sussex, on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) public order working group, states that offences under the hunting Act carry a fine of up to £5,000 but: "They are not recordable or notifiable under the national crime recording standards and I am also advised by Home Office lawyers that persons convicted of offences under the Hunting Act will not secure a criminal record."

As reported previously in OUR DOGS, many senior officers have expressed deep misgivings about the difficulties of policing a ban. Forces are reminded that the Hunting Act "confers power to arrest, not a duty" and are told that as far as hunting is concerned the main responsibility for the police is "the prevention of harm to all people involved".

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) questioned Mr Yeo’s interpretation and insisted that some sort of criminal record will be held. "There will be a criminal record but it won’t be a recordable offence," a spokeswoman said. "It won’t be on the police national computer and so police will not automatically know who has committed an offence. But people will have to declare it on applications for jobs and firearms offences."

The spokesperson that the Government would have laws in place to make it a recordable offence by next autumn – comfortably after the General Election, during which Prime Minister Tony Blair is desperate to avoid a confrontation with hunt supporters.

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael has said frequently that anyone convicted of flouting the ban might lose his or her firearms licence and might face difficulties with their employer or in obtaining insurance.

Anti-hunt campaigners were furious that after fighting for so long for laws to end the cruelty of hunting that offenders might not even get a criminal record. The RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports stated their intention to raise the matter with ministers and police chiefs.

Mr Yeo’s guidance also makes clear that the priority of policing a ban should be made locally and depends on the impact on the local community. He states: "The investigation of offences and the apprehension of offenders is a lower priority ordinarily than the maintenance of order and safety."

Mr Yeo has sent out what he calls tactical considerations for the police on February 18. He suggests that hunts should be given a warning if police believe that they are involved in illegal hunting. "It may be felt reasonable and proportionate to warn hunts which we believe to be acting unlawfully, rather than to seek to expend the effort in securing a prosecution."

Forces are also told that anti-hunt campaigners or anyone who interfered with legal hunting might be dealt with under offences of aggravated trespass.

John Rolls, director of animal welfare promotion at the RSPCA, said: "I shall be making very strong representations to ministers and police chiefs. We have not gone through this long battle including High Court action to have people getting off without a criminal records. If people are guilty of cruelty to animals they should be prosecuted and they should have a criminal record."

He admitted that he had not seen the ACPO advice but said that the RSPCA would monitor enforcement of the laws. "We expect police to act on hunting in the same way as any other crime," he said.

Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said he was astonished by Mr Yeo’s guidance. "It will no doubt come as a surprise to many that criminal statistics do not include all criminal offences. I am very surprised by it and I don’t know how they can even monitor the implementation of the Act if they are not even keeping a record of these offences."

Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said his message to hunters was defiant: "Keep hunting, keep fighting."