Alice Barnard: Shameful and shattered hunting ban should be scrapped

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DAVID Cameron joined politicians from all parties, the media, the police, judges, vets and senior civil servants when he declared in early 2011: “Everyone knows the Hunting Act isn’t working.” There can be no doubt that the Countryside Alliance’s campaign to see the Act repealed is gaining momentum.

Recently released Ministry of Justice statistics show that there were 36 convictions under the Act in 2010, but only one involved a hunt registered with the Council of Hunting Associations – the hunting watchdog in Britain. The other 35 convictions were for offences, primarily poaching, that are nothing to do with organised hunting. Poaching has been an offence for many hundreds of years and existing legislation enables the police to secure convictions for poaching without using the hopeless Hunting Act. It is a damning indictment of the Hunting Act that since it came into force in 2005, and until the end of 2010, only 181 people have been convicted, of which just six relate to registered hunts. This means a staggering 97 per cent of convictions relate to poaching or other casual hunting activities, including at least seven people who have been convicted of hunting rats without the consent of the landowner.

The statistics are a stark reminder of the Act’s failure. There are more than 325 registered hunts in England and Wales and more than 70,000 days of hunting have taken place since the Act came in to force. Twelve prosecutions under the Hunting Act have involved registered hunts, and only six of those have been successful.

On February 19, 2005, the day after the Hunting Act came into force, we said that it would not work and would therefore be a temporary law. From the outset we knew that an Act so illiberal and confusing and holding such disregard for evidence as the Hunting Act could and would not work. We take little pleasure in being proven right.

Hunts continue to operate under the law as best they can, but they are in an intolerable position, living with frequent harassment from animal rights protesters and under threat of prosecution every time they leave kennels with hounds. You may say “with so few convictions, surely let sleeping dogs lie – why get rid of the Act?” but that is to miss the point. No one wants to go about their daily job of work under the glare of vigilantes constantly filming them, making allegations against them and insinuating that they are guilty of a criminal offence. Why should the law that lets that happen continue to exist?

We all believe in high standards of animal welfare, but that should never mean that those who carry out wildlife management should be subjected to prejudice or false accusation. Or that their accusers should continue to cause such a waste of police resources and public money. With politicians of all parties now agreeing that the Act is “bad law” that was brought in for narrow partisan reasons, there is no logic for its continued existence.

Fortunately, the Government has committed itself to holding a free vote on a motion on the Hunting Act. However, the realities of coalition politics and the state of the nation’s finances mean that hunting cannot be a top political priority. So, regrettably, repeal is not imminent. Despite this, at the Countryside Alliance we are continuing to call for repeal, showing MPs and Lords from across the political spectrum that we are still here, still determined, and that a vote in due course is a matter of trust between us and Government.

We have also been very busy on behalf of hunting. Representatives of the Countryside Alliance political team and regional networks of volunteers are in talks with Parliamentarians and this will continue. And hunt supporters and Alliance members are also doing their bit: our online lobbying operation enabling thousands of supporters to canvas their MPs directly has been a huge success.

With our opponents reporting skewed figures on MPs’ voting intentions, and spreading misinformation trying to show that the shattered Hunting Act is a success, the case for repeal is our greatest advantage. It is based on facts.

There is now wide agreement from respected sources that the Act has failed. A recent poll also confirmed that a majority in the House of Lords favours repeal. It is not by accident that we are in this strong position. The Countryside Alliance and the hunting community have worked hard to get to this stage.

Even if you couldn’t care less about hunting, you should care about how this law came about and how its continued failure shames our Parliamentary process.

With your help and support we can make sure that this bad law is consigned to Parliament’s rubbish bin. Let’s scrap the Act.

Alice Barnard is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance