Group of people on the hunt riding horses

Theresa May pledges free vote on fox hunting

Earlier this week, Theresa May made the anticipated announcement that the Conservative party manifesto is to contain a pledge to repeal the Hunting Act 2004 (or parts of it) with Conservative MPs having a free vote on it when it comes before Parliament.

The Prime Minister also indicated her personal support for bringing back fox hunting.

Prior to the introduction of the Act, hunting activities were specifically excluded from several pieces of UK animal welfare legislation, for example the Protection of Animals Act 1911, the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.

However, that all changed when the Act came into force on 18 February 2005. In very broad terms, the Act creates the following offences in England and Wales (subject to various exemptions):

  • hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • permitting land to be used for hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • permitting a dog to be used for hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • participating in, attending, facilitating or permitting land to be used for the purposes of a hare-coursing event; and
  • entering, permitting or handling a dog in a hare-coursing event.

The offences are only triable by a Magistrates Court and punishable by a fine only.

The Act has been hugely controversial and has provoked fierce debate at every stage since its original inception, through its passage in Parliament and in its enforcement through the Courts.

What are the consequences of the Hunting Act

  • Over 400 people have been prosecuted under the Act since it came into effect. Clarke Willmott has advised and acted in literally dozens of these cases, including some of the most high-profile prosecutions.
  • Despite the relatively low-level nature of the offences created by the Act, some prosecutions under it have been conducted at massive and wholly disproportionate cost and the RSPCA, in particular, has come in for criticism of this.
  • Animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports regularly monitor Hunts with a view to trying to obtain evidence of hunts acting in breach of the Act. This has, in turn, given rise to satellite litigation where there have been altercations between hunt members/supporters and hunt monitors.

The announcement by the Prime Minister is not ground breaking in the sense that the 2010 and 2015 Conservative Party manifestos contained similar pledges on fox hunting. However, the difference this time is that all the opinion polls indicate that the Conservative Government will be returned with a significantly increased majority and this may well be enough to repeal the Act (or parts of it), notwithstanding that there are thought to be up to approximately 50 Conservative MPs who are likely to back the Act remaining in force in a free vote.

It remains to be seen exactly what the Conservative manifesto contains but in light of the Prime Minister’s announcement, it seems that during the course of the next Parliament changes might well be afoot for what is a hugely controversial piece of legislation.

The BBC report on the story can be found here.

For more information on the implications of the Hunting Act or any aspect of animal welfare, please contact Daniel Gill or Tim Hayden.