The debate on fox hunting has moved on from the parliamentary stage and through the legal challenges; now all the discussions are about the role of the police and their enforcement of the law. The earlier stages of the debate have been characterised by people talking a right load of bollocks on all sides, and this stage of the argument is no different.
I have read conflicting stories about whether a greater or lesser number of foxes were killed on the first day that hunting was made illegal. There are also a number of claims that not all hunts stayed within the new law, and that some foxes were killed unlawfully, apparently in mockery of the new legislation. Well, it may come as a surprise to some people, but the law is being broken all the time, even as we speak, in a huge variety of ways; this in itself does not affect whether a certain law is worthwhile or not.
I don’t want to get into the guts of whether or not the hunting ban is a good or bad thing, just to comment on some of the recent criticisms. For example, it has been suggested that the police have more important things to do than chase after huntsmen, as if this is reason enough to argue against a hunting ban; but the police already have a wide range of incidents they have to deal with, from the trivial to the serious, and they prioritise accordingly. Murder is a more serious matter than shoplifting; but that doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t bother with shoplifting, does it?
Another complaint is that it is pretty difficult to assess whether or not anyone is in fact breaking the new law, and so it is a tricky thing to actually bring charges against anybody. It is argued that if it is difficult to bring a prosecution then the whole fabric of law and order falls into contempt and disrepute. But what are burglary detection rates at the moment? Around 17%? Lower? Following this logic we shouldn’t bother with a criminal offence of Burglary either, because it is so difficult to get a conviction. It just strikes me that these are poor reasons to oppose the new law.
According the The Times, everyone is dismayed by the way the police seem to be handling this. Anti-hunters are reported to be upset by Assistant Chief Constable Adrian Whiting of Dorset Constabulary, due to his statement “that illegal hunting (is) much less important than letting off a firework after 11pm”. Pro-hunters “fears that police will rely on ‘vigilante groups’”.
The simple fact is that the police will respond, or will not respond, depending on the information they are passed by the general public. If they are informed of a breach of the law while a hunt is in progress, then they will attend to see if any offences are being committed, but only if there is an officer available; they won’t be dragging someone off an armed robbery to investigate, however. If someone makes an official complaint after the event and states they have evidence of an offence then the police will assess this evidence and see if a crime has been committed and whether or not anyone can be charged. If they feel there is enough information to charge an individual then they will present the evidence to the CPS who will decide if they think there is a case to answer in court. If they decide there is then the case will go to trial where a jury can decide. It is not rocket science.
Will the law be broken? Yes. Will people get away with breaking the law? Of course. Will the standing of the justice system suffer as a result? Not unless people want it to. When my car was broken into a few years back, an offence had clearly been committed yet no one was caught for the crime. Actually, I didn’t even bother to report it; not because I had no faith in the police, but because realistically nothing could be done by anyone to trace the offenders. I didn’t curse the police, or wail that there was no point in there being a crime of criminal damage on the statute book and the law may as well be repealed; I just got my brother to bend the passengers door back into place and carried on driving it (until it got nicked a month later!).
Which reminds me; if you’ll excuse me I am off to break the law myself. I will do what millions of people do every day and commit an offence. I will break a law that I agree with, and which I do not wish to see repealed. Even though I am going to wilfully and happily commit an offence, I do not feel the law itself is being brought into disrepute. I am about to get into my car, and historically I think I have broken the law every time I have driven. And no; I don’t mean I am intending to run over a fox.
Update 25/2/05: Last night on Question Time, Anne Atkins said she had been hunting mice around her house this week, in defiance of the hunting ban, to show how foolish and unenforceable the new law is. Roger Scruton has been doing the same. Is the new legislation any more foolish than hunting mice just in order to prove a point? I doubt it. Whatever, most of the points I have made above apply to Anne’s revelation; she may have broken the law (Alun Michael said she hasn’t) but it seems a pretty trivial breach, and if she keeps quiet about it then the police will be none the wiser, and she can continue to break the law to her heart’s content.
The thing is that Anne is publicising her criminal activities; she says she wants to go to prison for her actions, and the fact that she is still at large proves that the law is unenforceable. Well it doesn’t. If she really wants to be arrested, then rather than mouth off on TV she should present herself at a police station and admit her crime. I suspect the police will try to talk her out of the action (they do have more important things to deal with, you know), but if she insists and signs a confession then she can have her day before the magistrates. Well done. However, if she thinks she will have proved that the law is a waste of police time, then she will be wrong; she personally will have wasted police time, through her own stupidity and childishness.