Hunting Act 2004: past, present and future
Nine years have passed since the day when the Hunting Act 2004 was…hold on, when was it exactly? Well, not all historical events can be timed precisely to a single day, can they? Which day was printing invented? Which day was slavery abolished? Which day was bread first sliced?
We kind of remember the days when something terrible happened, but we tend to forget the days when we progressed as a society, almost because we feel embarrassed that we had not made the step earlier. You may expect, though, that when such progress is in the form of a new law that bans or abolishes something bad, the date would be far easier to find.
However, this is not the case of the Hunting Act 2004, because it had a very complex birth. It was voted for on several days (the Bill was approved many times in the Commons and then rejected by the Lords); it was given the Royal Assent on a different day; it was enacted on a different day; it was first applied on a different day; and some may say that the day when it becomes a law of the land that is treated like any other law is yet to come.
If I have to choose one date though, perhaps 18 November 2004 must be the one, when at 9.59 the Speaker of the Commons announced to Parliament:
“I have to acquaint the House that the House has been to the House of Peers, where a Commission under the Great Seal was read, authorising the Royal Assent to the following Acts: (…) The Hunting Act 2004”
I have a very personal relationship with the Hunting Act 2004. Initially, I was involved in the first successful prosecutions under it when I was working for the League Against Cruel Sports, and then a few years later when I was working on the campaign that banned bullfighting in Catalonia, the Act played a very important role in my involvement. I was one of the ‘experts’ called to testify before the Catalan Parliament as part of the scrutiny phase of the Bill to ban bullfighting, and many of the questions MPs put to me were related to the Hunting Act rather than bullfighting itself.
They wanted to know if it was really possible to abandon tradition in favour of animal welfare, and they wanted to know whether chaos had followed the enactment of the Act, as many of the pro-hunting advocates were predicting. I told them everything. How there was no chaos; how the majority of the public, not just in cities but also in the countryside, supported the ban; how all the legal challenges, including those to the Human Rights Court, had failed. I told them that it worked. That you can indeed get rid of cruel traditions in favour of important new values that drive society forward, not backwards.
To my mind, my answers reassured the MPs that wanted to vote for the bullfighting ban, but were unsure of the consequences. To my mind, the Hunting Act 2004 banned bullfighting in Catalonia, and no bullfights have taken place there since.
There is no doubt that the Hunting Act 2004 is a historic piece of legislation; a landmark law in animal protection; a milestone in the advancement of civilisation. However, by no means is it a perfect law.
There are very few perfect laws in this world that have survived for decades unchanged and unimproved, and this one has not even reached a decade yet. We know very well that the hunting fraternity, and the politicians that are close to them, want to get rid of it. Like any law facing these challenges, it is not easy to enforce legislation when faced with powerful organised criminals determined to circumnavigate it and with overworked law enforcers inclined to “de-prioritise” it, especially with the background of politicians openly threatening it with oblivion.
This is why it is very important that we do not lower our guard, and we continue to defend the hunting ban in general and the Hunting Act in particular.
On Tuesday 11 February a reception was held at the House of Commons hosted by Chris Williamson MP to mark the ninth anniversary of the Hunting Act coming into existence and to continue to urge MPs to stand firm and protect the hunting ban. It was organised by IFAW, the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA, the three organisations that worked very closely during the campaign to ban hunting, and continue working closely today to defend the ban and enforce the Act in hostile conditions, both politically and operationally.
The event was a success with dozens of MPs attending from across all parties. Four politicians spoke: Michael Foster, the former Labour MP responsible for one of the first attempts to achieve a hunting ban; Caroline Dinenage MP, Conservative; Adrian Sanders, Lib Dem; and the host Chris Williamson MP, Labour. They all spoke passionately about the past, the present and the future of the Act.
Representatives of the animal protection movement also spoke. Robbie Marsland, Director of IFAW UK, spoke about ‘the past’. He said: “Encouraging a pack of hounds to chase and tear apart a mammal was made illegal nine years ago. IFAW is proud to have been an important part of this vital campaign. We continue to monitor the successful enforcement of this law and we look forward to the rest of the 21st Century being free from this barbaric, so called, sport.” Rachel Newman, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Operations of the League Against Cruel Sports spoke about ‘the present’, and the event ended with Gavin Grant, CEO of the RSPCA, rallying us for ‘the future’.
The future of the hunting ban is by no means secured. The coalition Government is still committed to a debate in Parliament as to whether a vote to repeal the Act is needed, though there have been credible reports that the Government, unsure if it will be able to win such vote, may be trying to eliminate the ban ‘by the back door’, through amendments that make its enforcement more difficult.
One such amendment is the elimination of the restriction on the number of dogs in some of the exemptions in the schedule of the Act, namely the “flushing to guns” exemption. The reports about this suggest the Government will be arguing that in Scotland, research has proven that if you use more than two dogs you can flush more foxes to guns and kill them quicker. They will argue that the Welsh farmers have complained that the restriction to two dogs that the Hunting Act imposes increases the incidences of foxes preying on their lambs.
The whole thing is obviously a farce intended to make enforcement of the Act more difficult. There is no proof that foxes significantly prey on lambs, and the Scottish research is flawed as there are other factors that may have affected the results other than the number of dogs, such as the fact that in Scotland exempt hunting allows foxes be chased by the hounds (in England and Wales the Hunting Act does not allow any chasing to take place, so changing the number of dogs would not have the same effect as in Scotland where chasing is allowed).
Additionally, the Hunting Act ‘flushing to guns’ exemption does not mention foxes at all, just wild mammals, so by removing the condition regarding the number of dogs, the Government will make prosecution of illegal stag hunting more difficult, as most stag hunts have been relying on exemptions to circumnavigate the ban. Essentially, such a simple amendment could result in an ‘ipso facto’ re-legalisation of stag hunting, which is the blood sport the most people in the UK are opposed to.
Therefore, we need to be vigilant and ensure that the public and politicians stand together to protect the hunting ban against attempts to either repeal or weaken the Hunting Act.
History cannot be undone, and civilised societies do not return to cruelty.