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Viscount Astor (Conservative)

My Lords, next Sunday, had it not been for the recent tragic outbreaks of foot and mouth, London would have been full of at least half a million people marching under the banner, "Liberty and Livelihood". The countryside would have been able to have its say against a ban on hunting. I am against a ban on hunting. I declare an interest. I have hunted all my life. I have been master of my local hunt, the Old Berks, and I am now chairman of the hunt.

There are four myths about hunting that I shall try to expose this evening: first, the myth that hunting is not an integral part of the countryside; then the myth of cruelty; then the myth that foxes would be better off without hunting; and finally the myth that there is a moral case against hunting.

I shall not refer to any noble Lord by name--it would take too long even to read out the names of the 60 or so noble Lords who have spoken this evening--but I shall try to pick up the various strands of the debate.

Like the Countryside March, this debate is about liberty and livelihood. I start by quoting from the editorial of the Farmers Weekly on 26th January:

"Only a mass peaceful protest thronging the streets of London on March 18th will be enough to make government listen to what the countryside has to say. It will be a march neither solely in defence of hunting, nor dedicated to the promotion of other country pursuits. Its relevance is broader. Its significance deeper. Its need for success outweighs any special interest group".

The editorial went on to say:

"At stake lies not just the freedom of individuals to choose whether to support country traditions, important though they are. At the heart of this march is the survival of our farming industry, the beautiful countryside within its care and thousands of rural communities".

Hunting is part of rural communities. There are 178 hunts in this country that average 74 days' hunting each. That amounts to 13,172 days in total. That does not mean that one cannot live in a rural community without being involved in hunting or other field sports. Many people are not, and they pursue other interests. However, last year 4,000 hunt functions took place, with an overall attendance of 1.3 million people. Millions more attended events associated with shooting and fishing.

We all benefit from the richness and diversity of our countryside, which has evolved over many years. It is a largely man-made countryside, tended by those who live in it and care for it. To quote the Burns report:

"Hunting has clearly played a very significant role in the past in the formation of the rural landscape and in the creation and management of areas of nature conservation".

I believe that the English countryside is a common possession. It is, after all, criss-crossed by ancient rights of way, footpaths, byways and bridle paths. It is our common inheritance and it occupies a favourite place in every English person's image of his homeland.

This Bill is intolerant and anti-democratic. It threatens all those rights and the English countryside by attacking those who live in it and work in it, whether on farms, in villages or in towns.

Animals are not moral beings. They have neither rights nor duties. They are not sovereign over their own lives and they can commit no crimes. If they were moral beings, how could we justify killing them for food, capturing or confining them? It would follow that lions would be murderers, magpies would be thieves and mice would be burglars. The fox would be the worst of all living criminals, killing not only for food but for wanton pleasure.

The reality is that there is a cycle of life and death in the animal world. Those who promote Utopian animal rights promote ecological anarchism. Some people believe that animals have similar rights to humans. In his book Unfettered Kingdom, John Bryant of the League Against Cruel Sports writes on pets:

"Pet animals should be completely phased out of existence ... Pet animals are slaves and prisoners".

He goes on to say that he wants,

"to watch a herd of domestic horses freed of the trappings of slavery".

The consequences of letting pets and horses roam free would be an ecological disaster in this country.

If there is one issue from the Burns report that has caused more debate than any other it is that relating to cruelty. Opponents of hunting claim that the Burns report says that hunting is cruel. I cannot find any reference in the report to back up that claim. As my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior said, the Burns report did not conclude that hunting is cruel.

In chapter 6, paragraph 49, the report states that hunting,

"seriously compromises the welfare of the fox".

However, it states that,

"insensibility and death will normally follow within a matter of seconds once the fox is caught".

It goes on to say:

"None of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective".

That is not the same as cruelty. Sending an animal to a slaughterhouse compromises its welfare: it comes out dead. Shooting a pheasant compromises its welfare. Catching a trout in a river and netting cod in the sea compromises the fishes' welfare--they end up on a plate.

What about the domestic cat which is let out at night when small birds are on their nests? And what about animal experiments? Do not they, too, compromise the animal's welfare? All those actions compromise the welfare of animals, but that does not necessarily make them all cruel. If angling involved lifting a fish out of the water to cause it pain rather than returning it or dispatching it quickly, we might have a different view of angling, although little might differ in the fish's perception.

Would foxes be better off in the world if they were not hunted? Would they enjoy a happier and easier life and an easier death? The fox would gain nothing from the abolition of hunting. Faced with that evidence, two former directors of the League Against Cruel Sports abandoned their advocacy of a ban on hunting.

Hunting a fox discriminates against the old and the diseased. It is not easy to catch a healthy fox. Shooting foxes, while necessary in some parts of England, discriminates against bold and healthy animals. Hunting involves the pursuit of the quarry in its wild and natural state and the quarry encounters nothing outside its natural repertoire of defences.

As we heard, hunting, like many sports, brings together people from all walks of life. Just come hunting and have a look. It is old Labour cant to suggest otherwise. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is old Labour and he is fighting old battles. He recently said on Radio 4:

"Every time I see the Countryside Alliance's contorted faces, I redouble my determination to abolish foxhunting".

The only contorted face I see is his when confronted by farmers at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth.

Those who are against hunting seem to object most not to hunting with hounds but to the followers. Let us remember that it is the hounds that do the hunting and that the followers follow the hounds on foot, horse, bicycle or car. It is that pleasure--of following the hounds--that seems to cause more bitterness than anything else to those who are against hunting.

Before I deal with the Bill in a bit more detail I should commend the Government on setting up the Burns inquiry. I do not often commend the Government so I hope that the noble and learned Lord will appreciate that commendation. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their extremely fine report.

The Bill as it stands has much wrong with it. Anyone who puts an injured animal out of its misery could be branded a criminal. The Bill reverses the normal burden of proof, which is contrary to a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice. The Bill offers us three options: a ban, independent supervision and regulation. This House must have the opportunity to consider and to vote on all three options.

The second option involves the Independent Supervisory Authority for Hunting and is my preferred option. It was set up following the Phelps review of hunting and had been recommended as far back as the Scott-Henderson inquiry. Since its creation, hunting has shown that it conducts its sport in a responsible manner. The ISAH has had no complaints since its inception, even from the "antis". That is a record that other sports would find hard to match.

Licensing is seen as the middle way. It does not satisfy the "banners" of this world. It is anathema to the likes of Tony Banks, a Member of another place, who recently said in an article in the Independent:

"I am convinced that in years to come we will regard eating animal flesh in the same light as we now regard cannibalism".

One can see why he chooses to fight an urban seat.

The Government brought forward the Bill for one reason: because they received a donation of £1.1 million from the political animal lobby. A large donation can get one a lot from the Government: a ban on tobacco advertising lifted, a passport and an awful lot of tickets to the Dome. That is new Labour showing itself at its most cynical. The Government have allowed a Bill to be introduced so late in the parliamentary timetable that it cannot succeed. They knew that when they started this process.

In short, they want more money from the political animal lobby, more donations to fight the next election. Look at those groups that are lobbying the Government. Deadline 2000 is made up of three organisations. The International Fund for Animal Welfare is not a charity; it is a lobbying group. It has no membership, and therefore none of the accountability that a membership organisation would have, and it has been accused, in America, of misusing its funds. The League Against Cruel Sports is an organisation that is dedicated to the disruption of hunting. Its press officer, Andrew Walsley, the public face of the League, pleaded guilty to taking part in a riot at Hillgrove Farm in 1998. He was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for violent disorder. When leaders deny the role of their extremist members and violent acts, they sound less convincing than the most fervent IRA Sinn Fein apologist.

The RSPCA is the third part of this triumvirate. It will be judged by the company it keeps, and it will be judged harshly. Sadly, now it is an organisation that is more obsessed with animal rights than animal welfare.

There are other extremist groups, including the Animal Rights Militia, which openly promote violence. Only yesterday, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front refused to condemn the extremists among its ranks who have targeted MPs who are pro-hunting.

A ban on hunting would lead to pressure on shooting and fishing. The Prime Minister says that he is not against shooting and fishing, but the political animal lobby and its friends, the people who are in favour of ethical treatment of animals, do not agree. They want to start a national campaign against anglers. Their spokesman, Andrew Butler, stated recently:

"We are planning demonstrations at fish and chip shops across the country."

We therefore have to ask the Government, should they win the next election, which I doubt: if £1.1 million was all it took to ban hunting, how much will it take to ban shooting--£2 million or £4 million? How much will it take to ban angling--£5 million or £10 million?

The Government ought to be concentrating on the crisis in British agriculture, a crisis that is affecting all those involved in farming and rural industries. Rural tourism is also in crisis: hotels, holiday lets, bed and breakfast establishments are all facing economic disaster, but no compensation will be offered to them. The Government should be dealing with the crises in rural schools, rural hospitals, and the cuts in police numbers in rural areas.

I agree with the right reverend Prelates. The moral objection to hunting is not one that I can accept, however honestly or deeply it is felt; nor can I accept the gesture politics of those who vote for a ban just after finishing their steak for dinner.

Many people disapprove of religious slaughter of animals, but it does not follow that this practice, which is central to the lives of Jews and Muslims, should be banned. Tolerance of minorities is one of the traditional English virtues, but it does not seem to be one of new Labour's.

I conclude with a warning to the Government: to allow a ban would be a cynical use of the tyranny of the majority to settle the question without regard to the rights of a minority. A large majority of noble Lords who have spoken this evening spoke against a ban. The Minister is very patient, and we look forward to his response.

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