Hunting with Dogs: Prohibition

Orders of the Day — Hunting Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 17th January 2001.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Clauses 2 to 4 stand part.

Government new clause 1—Commencement (No. 2)—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.

Government new clause 2—Commencement (No. 3)—and amendments (a) to (c) thereto.

Government new clause 3—Commencement (No. 4)—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.

There will thus be a joint debate on the first four clauses of the Bill together with the three new clauses and associated selected amendments. The Committee will have the opportunity at 10 o'clock to vote successively on each of the three options contained in clauses 1 to 3, before dealing with the consequential matters relating to the clauses. I appeal to members of the Committee to restrain themselves in the length of their speeches, if they catch my eye. The point has been made that a great many people have a deep interest in the matter. To allow as many as possible to contribute, and to cover all shades of opinion, I hope that all hon. Members will adopt brevity as their guide.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Clause 1 incorporates schedule 1. I hasten to add that, in speaking to the clause, I am not in any sense advocating a vote for it; I am merely recognising, as a Minister of the House, that the debate has to start somewhere. In due course, I shall move the further clauses that deal with the schedules.

It might be helpful if I say a few words about the procedural issues. I shall not advise hon. Members on how they should vote, as the Government are neutral on the question of which option to adopt. My personal views were put on record on Second Reading. I shall make a couple of procedural points so that hon. Members know how we shall proceed. I know that you, Sir Alan, have already said how you intend to deal with our proceedings.

We are currently dealing with clause 1, which introduces schedule 1 and which has been proposed by the Countryside Alliance. Similarly, clause 2 introduces schedule 2, which has been proposed by the Middle Way Group, and clause 3 introduces schedule 3, which has been proposed by Deadline 2000. When we vote, hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that they ought to vote for the schedule that they support. In addition— this may seem a little basic, but I say it for clarity's sake—hon. Members should vote against any clause that introduces schedules that they oppose. That matters, because the fact that one of the options receives a majority will not necessarily cause the other two to fall. The procedure assumes that hon. Members will seek to have one schedule in the Bill by the end of the day. That will be the case only if hon. Members decide to allow the other two schedules to fall.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

As regards the Government's neutrality—I am sure that many of us heard the Minister on Radio 4 this morning—the Deputy Prime Minister has said: Every time I see the Countryside Alliance's contorted faces, I redouble my determination to abolish foxhunting£ The Prime Minister has said that he would vote to abolish foxhunting. Does not that slightly compromise the Government's neutrality?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

It does not, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. The same applied when the House considered the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which was introduced by the previous Government. Distinguished Conservative Front Benchers, including the shadow Home Secretary, held their own views. Unfortunately, I suspect that she may not be allowed to speak in this debate—she is on record as saying that her view is not shared by many others in her party.

Each individual Member of the House is allowed a free vote. All parties have agreed that whips will not apply. It is for each constituency MP to determine how to represent his or her constituents. Thus my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have expressed their views, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has expressed his view. Likewise, the Leader of the Opposition has a view that is not shared, as we know, by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). Therefore, each Member will express a view, which is how it should be on a matter of conscience.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister has described the procedure. Did I understand him to suggest that, even if a majority is in favour after one of the first two votes, that will tot necessarily be the final result? If that is what he meant, how will we reach a final outcome, as two Divisions could result in majorities in favour?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Indeed. It is feasible, though very unlikely, that the Committee could decide to include all three schedules. Perchance, should every Member vote for all three schedules, the Bill would contain three contradictory provisions, but that is so unlikely that it will not happen. That brings me neatly to my next point, which deals with the amendments standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Minister confirm what he said in the debate on Second Reading? Will Members who vote for schedule 1 only to be defeated be free to vote for schedule 2? Will Members be able to vote for two different propositions?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Yes. Any permutation is possible. Hon. Members who vote for schedule 1 would be free to vote for schedule 2 should schedule 1 fall. Were they so disposed, they would be free to vote for schedule 3 or, indeed, against it. The hon. Gentleman is right—hon. Members must make a decision on each vote.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained the purpose behind his amendments when he opened the debate on Second Reading. The rules of the House prevent Bills with internally contradictory provisions from being introduced. That is why the Bill includes a fairly complicated commencement provision providing for the commencement of one schedule and the repeal of the other two. It is our intention that whichever option is chosen by the House should take effect a year after Royal Assent.

New clauses 1, 2 and 3, which relate to schedules 1, 2 and 3 respectively, have precisely that purpose. New clause 2, which will interest the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and which relates to schedule 2, is slightly more complicated than the other two. It contains transitional provisions to ensure that the hunting authority would be up and running before it became unlawful to hunt without a licence. There would be a special provision in that regard. Therefore, let me make it clear that, when the relevant time comes, I shall invite the Committee to agree that the present clause 4 should be omitted. At that point, I shall move only the new clause relating to whichever schedule has received a majority vote.

Let me deal with the amendments standing in the names of the four Plaid Cymru Members. Their consequence would be that the legislation would come into force in Wales only by an order made by the National Assembly for Wales, whichever option were chosen. Under the terms of the devolution settlement endorsed by the people of Wales in a referendum, responsibility for primary legislation rests with the Westminster Parliament. Thus the power to decide whether to ban hunting in Wales is not transferred to the National Assembly for Wales.

The result of the amendments would be that the decision on the issue of hunting with dogs would, in effect, rest with the Assembly. For example, the Assembly could decide never to make the appropriate commencement order. Such a move would negate the will of this Parliament. Having said that—

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I suspect that a Plaid Cymru Member may want to intervene on this matter, so if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me, I shall take his intervention later.

I appreciate that the future of hunting with dogs may have particular implications for Welsh hill farmers. Such concerns should and can be taken into account during the passage of the Bill in this place and can be a subject for debate.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

On the whole, the Minister has given an accurate portrayal of the purpose of the amendments. Does he agree, however, that whichever provision is accepted, our amendments would not undermine the present devolution settlement? I draw his attention to the example of performance-related teachers' pay in Wales—enacted by primary legislation in this place, but brought in under a commencement order with a date to be decided by the National Assembly for Wales. That date may have been at no time in the future—exactly like these provisions. Nothing in the amendments undermines the settlement. The amendments would enable the National Assembly to do what it thinks fit for hunting and for agriculture in Wales.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The Bill creates criminal offences. Education is, of course, a devolved matter, so there would obviously be a relationship between the Westminster Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in which there was a certain amount of give and take. However, the Bill deals with criminal offences; it is my view that the 40 Members who represent Welsh constituencies are as capable as the Assembly of representing Wales on hunting with dogs.

In the light of my comments, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendments in due course.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman is talking about devolved business. He will be aware that this matter is devolved business for the Scottish Parliament—the Bill does not apply to Scotland. What, then, is the justification for hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies voting on a matter that has and can have no application for their constituents in Scotland?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

This Parliament determines whether MPs can vote on a particular matter in this place. This Parliament has determined that MPs representing Scottish constituencies have a constitutional right to vote in the debate on this issue. I do not accept that it is right for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to undermine the legitimacy of the constitutional right of Members to vote in this House. Our view is that Scottish constituency Members will no doubt make their own judgment as to whether they want to vote—that is a decision for them. However, they have a constitutional right to vote and it is certainly wrong for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to try to undermine that. He may well want further to sow seeds of disunity, but the Government believe that Scottish constituency MPs who sit in this place perform functions which, under our constitution, it is right and proper for them to undertake.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall give way once more and then I want to make some progress. I give way to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On the Plaid Cymru amendments that would affect the right of the Welsh Assembly to trigger the legislation in Wales, will the Minister confirm that there is no Government Whip and that all Labour Back Benchers are free to express their own view? Will he also confirm that it is thus up to the Committee to decide today whether it wants to amend, in respect of hunting, the previous settlement on the powers of the Welsh Assembly?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no Government Whip on any of the merits of the issues. It might be helpful to point out that, once we get past the decision on the schedule, I, as the Minister, will have to put the view of this Committee to the Standing Committee. I intend to do that by ensuring that, in Standing Committee, the Government will protect the will of the House—whichever schedule it determines to support. We shall ensure that there is good law in the measure and that it is protected from unnecessary or undue change. Although we shall listen to any technical debates, it is our aim to deliver the will of the House during the Standing Committee proceedings.

At that stage, we shall have to consider any technical issues about which we receive clear legal advice that they would undermine the quality of good law, and whether there may be an issue in relation to whipping. I am not giving an undertaking throughout the Committee stage, but there is no Government Whip on the merits of the issues before the House today.

4 pm

Let me conclude by setting out the Government's broad position. The Government made a manifesto commitment to hold a free vote on hunting with dogs. Unlike previous Conservative Governments, this Government believe in delivering on their promises. It became clear during the debate on the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), that, to some extent, the core of factual argument usually present during debates did not exist on the issue of hunting with dogs. We therefore decided to set up the Burns inquiry, which reported in due course.

It is a great tribute to Lord Burns that the Countryside Alliance, Deadline 2000 and the Middle Way Group were all able to say that they could work with the report. It established a core of facts around which the wider moral and political debate could revolve. I believe, therefore, that this debate should be more factual, less emotional and more coherent, and that we can reach a much fairer decision.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

No, I have said that I shall not give way. I have been generous in giving way, and I shall not give way any further.

The Government's aim is to facilitate debate and decision. Some people have suggested that the House should not debate hunting at all. The Government's view is that hunting has been a matter of serious public debate for many years. It has been on the front pages of our newspapers and on our radio and television programmes. Acres of print have been devoted to it. It has also been the subject of controversy in social gatherings.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

On a point of order, Sir Alan. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but would it not be right to remind hon. Members that the House is in Committee, where it is customary to allow interventions more freely? [Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I think that I can manage to deal with that point of order. Irrespective of whether the House is in Committee, it is entirely a matter of discretion as to whether the hon. Member who has the Floor gives way.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for that advice. My concern is that Back Benchers want to speak in the debate and if I were to spend all my time taking interventions—which I could, because some Opposition Members would wish to try to bait the Minister—I could probably continue to speak for the text hour or so. Other hon. Members have the right to have a say. Perhaps if I set out the Government's broad position, we shall find out what others have to say.

Clearly, there are concerns throughout the country, but it is nonsense to suggest, as was done on Second Reading, that Parliament should not debate the issue or that we should somehow abstain from taking a decision on it. Other issues are important to the Government, and the Government are acting on them. Some of them have required legislation and others are being pursued by the Government as a matter of policy. They will affect rural areas in the same way that foxhunting does, whatever decision we take on it.

The Government proposed 19 Bills during the Queen's Speech, one of which was on hunting. On crime, we have set out our policies to tackle loutish and rowdy behaviour in rural and urban areas and to give more power to the police. We have set out our policies on how we are increasing police recruits by 9,000 over and above those originally expected. There are other issues. On the national health service and education, we have given the biggest boost to those public services in a generation.

To those who say that the mere debating of foxhunting sows divisions between the countryside and the town, I say that the Government have set out clear policies in their rural White Paper to help rural areas and those who may be affected by the decisions that we reach today. The previous Government ignored rural areas, which is why more people in rural areas voted Labour at the last general election than voted for the Conservatives. The Conservative party ignored rural areas, but the Government—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but he is going wide even of the clause stand part debate.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

You are obviously aware, Sir Alan, that people have legitimately argued that, instead of dealing with hunting, the Government should concentrate on issues that relate to crime, the health service and education. I certainly accept your ruling, and I shall move on. However, I want to make it clear that the Government have set out their policies on such issues, and we are dealing with them as they relate to rural areas, which the previous Government failed to do.

The issue of sowing divisions between rural and urban areas has been raised by Opposition Back Benchers throughout our debates on hunting. It has been a key argument of some people who would no doubt support clause 1. However, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is one of the people who best ditched that argument. She said: The town verses the country claim is irresponsible for it attempts to divide Britain. I give her credit for putting it like that. She set out her arguments at greater length in her article in The Observer some months ago. Her deputies should not undermine her views when they put their case before the House.

As for the House being precluded from debating hunting, Parliament is the forum for debate on issues of public importance, and hunting with dogs is an issue on which the public have always shown interest, whether they are for or against it. Let that debate begin today. That is the purpose of moving the clause. Let us have a debate that is in the spirit of the Burns report and hear arguments that are based more on fact than on emotion, so that we consider the issues of liberty and the concerns about cruelty.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The House has a great tradition of being a forum for the nation, and hunting with dogs should be debated here.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

How could I refuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is so persistent?

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

The Minister just said that the debate should be based on factual argument. Before the rights of hundreds of thousands of citizens are removed and their lawful activities are criminalised, does he agree that that should be objectively justifiable and that questions of cruelty should be a matter not, as he put, for our consciences, but for the courts to decide on objective reasons?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that Parliament should abrogate its constitutional right to make law, then I disagree with him. That is not what his constituents elected him to do. I was elected to consider the issues that are before the nation, and to debate them in a proper and sensible way. That is why we produced the Burns report; that is why we want the debate to have a factual core; and that is why we have said that the issue should be debated on the ground of rationality rather than of mere emotion.

The House has a great tradition of being a forum for the nation. Hunting with dogs should be debated here. Whether hunting is to continue or not, it is a decision for Parliament. I look forward to the debate. It will be a focus of great national interest, and it is right that we should have it.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I made my position clear during the debate on Second Reading. My intention is to vote in favour of the first option—the self-regulation option. If that is defeated, I shall vote for the option of licensed hunting as second best. I intend to vote against the third option, which proposes a complete ban on hunting with hounds. Conservative Members, like Labour Members, have a free vote. As many hon. Members—on both sides of the House and on both sides of the debate—did not have the opportunity to set out their views at similar length on Second Reading, I intend to keep my contribution as brief as possible.

Those of us who are against a ban have to make up our minds between clauses 1 and 2. My support for the first option partly derives from my instinctive preference—unless there is very persuasive evidence to the contrary—for self-regulation rather than state regulation. I fear, too, that the licensing system that is proposed in schedule 2 would be both cumbersome and bureaucratic.

Before I go into further detail on my criticisms of that option, it is fair that I should pay tribute to the hard work that has been done by the authors of that option in the Middle Way Group and, in particular, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). They have made an honest and determined effort to find middle ground that would enable both sides of this passionate argument to come together on an agreed solution. However, I am not persuaded that the option which they are offering and which would be brought into effect by clause 2 is the most desirable of the options available to the Committee.

State regulation almost inevitably brings with it a detailed Whitehall-written rule book. It introduces inflexibility in the adaptation of rules to the diversity of individual cases. In this particular case, we would be introducing, under schedule 2, a national system for licensing all hunting with dogs. That would not simply be a licensing system applying to organised hunts and organised hare coursing as they now exist, since licences would have to be sought and obtained by numerous individual men and women—for example, the people who own and use terriers in connection with the hunting of mammals.

The schedule would also introduce a national system for the inspection of premises. I am unclear from part II of schedule 2 whether the inspection regime would include the inspection of the homes of people who held a licence, but it certainly would appear to apply to hunt kennels, stables and farm buildings. That clearly would be a considerable task for a hunting authority to undertake. It would require an extensive body of detailed regulation and a fair number of employees or agents who would be prepared to act on behalf of the proposed hunting authority in implementing such a system of licensing and inspection.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

I shall go into this point in more detail should I catch your eye, Sir Alan, but I recognise that it would be an extensive project to inspect all those premises in the way our schedule would require. Nevertheless, we think that that is a price worth paying to make sure that hunting is conducted in a transparent manner. I appreciate that I may differ from the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I understand and pay tribute to the motives that generated the proposal from the hon. Gentleman and his allies.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to members of the Middle Way Group, including the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), but can be explain why the three leading protagonists of the middle way all voted against the Bill's Second Reading? Had they been successful, it would effectively have excluded them from considering their own proposal. Is it not a fact that the members of the Middle Way Group are nothing more than subfusc hunters?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman has a long track record of seeking a complete ban on hunting and he is being true to his history. It is for the members of the Middle Way Group to speak for themselves if they get the opportunity and to justify the stand that they have taken and will take today. As the hon. Gentleman said, and as I implied in my introductory remarks, the choice between the first and second options at the end of today's proceedings is really a choice for those who believe, as I do and as the Home Secretary does, that hunting should be allowed to continue.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 4:15 pm, 17th January 2001

While I endorse my hon. Friend's views about the work and authorship of the Middle Way Group and their good intention, I am sure that it would not be his intention to suggest that the Masters of Foxhounds Association does not vigorously and robustly police the rules of hunting.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend's comment is apt and true, and it is one reason why I believe that self-regulation is the option that the Committee should prefer when we come to divide.

My greatest doubt about schedule 2—the so-called middle way option—concerns its supporters' optimism that it will be a solution that the opponents of hunting will accept. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire is a man who knows his Bible. I consider that the vision in chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah—the vision of the wolf dwelling with the lamb—is more likely to be achieved than those who have been opposed to hunting as a matter of principle for many years agreeing on the middle way option.

We are dealing not only with people who have put forward in this place the case for a statutory ban on hunting with hounds, but with people outside the House who have shown that they are prepared to use intimidation, threats of violence and actual violence to achieve their ends. We are talking about people who within the past few weeks have used nail bombs against ordinary British citizens who have some link, direct or indirect, with hunting, which remains a perfectly lawful pursuit.

Today, a message has been posted on the website of the League Against Cruel Sports by someone who perhaps sums up the extreme view on that side of the debate. He says to his allies: Please try and come along to the House of Commons today if you support a ban on hunting.We need as many people as possible to show the hunters what real scum they are. Perhaps we could also smash their tents they've been sleeping in over the past couple of days. The message is signed "Vegan", and the signature is followed by what appear to be two kisses. Such irrational and unreasoning hostility—indeed, hatred—has been experienced by many ordinary decent men and women in different parts of the country who enjoy supporting or following lawful hunts.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

While no one would justify such activities, will the hon. Gentleman tell me whether he justifies the attack on my constituency office by pro-hunt supporters in the middle of last night? The attack damaged my office, making it impossible for my assistants to gain entry for a good few hours and preventing them from doing the work necessary to help my constituents. Will the hon. Gentleman condemn those who took part in that outrageous activity?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I believe that all parties to the debate should stay strictly within the law; that any allegation that the law has been broken—whether in the case that the hon. Lady describes, in those that I have mentioned, or in those to which other hon. Members have referred during other debates—should be properly investigated by the police; and that, if the evidence to do so exists, a prosecution should be brought before the courts in the usual way.

I do not believe that the agreement sought by the Middle Way Group is likely to be reached, which in turn means that there will be continuing controversy about some of the elements of the group's proposal. If it were enacted, there would be a risk of continuing controversy about the proposed selection by the Secretary of State of the members of the hunting authority. There would be arguments about whether the members of the authority represented the balance of interests envisaged in the schedule. There is also a question in my mind about whether the proposed authority would be likely ever to reach a decision by consensus, or whether there would instead be a series of bitter arguments about codes of practice and individual licensing decisions—arguments which would presumably be settled by a vote among the members of the authority, without the consensus sought by the authors of the proposal.

Mr. Öpik:

In the context of the concerns voiced by the hon. Gentleman and others, the Middle Way Group recognises that it is creating a framework within which such issues will have to be resolved. Throughout, we have tried to create a balance: for example, we have specified that the majority of members of the hunting authority must have no vested interest in either side of the hunting debate. We are sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed, but we believe that they ire capable of being resolved during the set-up period that the Minister described.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman's proposal were made law, my hope would be that his optimism would be justified by the way in which events unfolded. I have expressed my doubts about whether that is likely.

Faced with the choice, I should greatly prefer clause 2 and schedule 2, whatever the imperfections, to the complete ban provided for in clause 3 and schedule 3. I believe that a ban is objectionable in principle. It would impose severe restrictions on the freedom of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens and would do so with no gain in terms of animal welfare. I have yet to hear from those who advocate a ban on hunting any persuasive account of how the much greater use of shooting and snaring that would inevitably follow the imposition of a ban on hunting with hounds would lead to a beneficial outcome in animal welfare terms. Indeed, the reverse is true: shooting and snaring are unselective; there is no closed season for shooting or snaring foxes; and shooting and snaring carry a far greater risk than hunting of an animal being wounded and left to die a lingering and painful death. Indeed, that analysis lay behind the conclusion of the Burns report that there were serious animal welfare implications in all the alternative methods of mammal control considered by the inquiry.

A detailed examination of schedule 3 gives cause for real disquiet about its practical implications. The offences are not tightly defined, there is no definition of hunting and the schedule makes no reference to cruelty—all matters that should be explored further in Standing Committee.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make progress.

The police powers envisaged in the schedule are draconian. The schedule would give the police the power to arrest without warrant anyone who they thought had committed, was committing, or was about to commit, an offence as defined by the schedule.

The maximum penalty that the Bill proposes for hunting with hounds, if the practice were to be outlawed, is a fine. However, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, those offences in respect of which the police have a power of arrest without warrant are normally those so serious that they carry a prison sentence of five years or longer. To add hunting with hounds to that list of arrestable offences seems to be employing disproportionate and draconian enforcement measures to the problem, even judged by the likes of those who are seeking a ban.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I apologise for taking the hon. Gentleman back slightly. Through the miracles of modern technology, he referred to something on the website of the League Against Cruel Sports. That item was not authorised by the league or put on the website by it, and it has been removed. The league believes that it was a bit of black propaganda. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to have that information.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am glad that the league has removed it. If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, I think he will find that I made it clear that the message had been posted by its author on the league's website.

Assaulting or obstructing a police constable in the performance of his duty is not an arrestable offence. However, if the schedule is enacted, letting one's dog hunt a rabbit will potentially become an arrestable offence. That seems hardly the best use of scarce police time and resources.

Yesterday, the Home Office announced a huge increase in violent crime. Today, the Government are saying that the top priority for government action and for new law is a Bill to ban foxhunting. The Government are showing a sense of priorities that verges on the surreal. A ban on hunting would be both illiberal and intolerant. It would harm individual freedom without benefits to animal welfare. It would involve powers and penalties out of all proportion to the alleged problem. When those of us who intend to do so vote against a ban tonight, we shall be voting for the liberty of our constituents, for the livelihoods of our constituents and for plain common sense.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

I shall intervene only briefly because I have to attend a statutory instruments Committee. Perhaps the House will understand if I leave the Chamber after I have spoken.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will last weekend have received two videos in the post. One of them was called "The Killing Game", and I do not dissent from its contents. It was produced by an organisation called Protect our Wild Animals. Another video was sent by my friend and colleague, Lord BraggMelvyn Bragg. It sets out the story of a man who lives in the Lake district in a neighbouring constituency to mine and who farms on Langdale. He has a particular problem which he has set out in the video. I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends not to put that video in the bin, which is what we usually do with videos. I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends who may not be in the Chamber—they may be in their offices, or wherever—to consider the video's contents.

I am against hunting, and I have opposed it all my life. I will vote for a complete ban this evening. However, there is a problem in parts of the country which is not being addressed in the debate. That problem is what will happen in the Lake district, parts of Scotland and, I am told, parts of Wales in the event that there is a total ban.

The problem is simple and is set out in "Eric's Story". Eric Taylforth is a fell farmer, and he was filmed last December in the snow looking after his lambs. He argues that, in the event of hunting being ended, he will lose lambs, and he refuses to allow guns on to his fells.

I shall not be here in the next Parliament, but there will be complaints from somewhere in the country the moment that the shooters appear on the fells under the pretext that they are setting out to kill foxes. It will not work. An invasion of rifles and weaponry into a national park such as mine, where people roam over the fells throughout the year, cannot be allowed. My sons were on top of Latrigg, a fell in the Lake district, only a few weeks ago at Christmas in the snow. People roam the fells the year round. If the Bill is enacted in its present form, the shooters will be allowed into the Lake district and they will do much damage and frighten many people.

4.30 pm

I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends to address this important problem. One or two farmers in the Lake district are prepared to see the shooters there, but in reality—

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

No, I want to be brief. I am sorry, but many people want to speak.

I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends to watch the video.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

I am sorry, but I do not intend to give way.

Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have told me that their minds are made up, that they do not want to consider the video and will throw it in the bin. That is not the way to proceed in a matter such as this. We must consider the other case. We must consider the special problems of people who refuse completely to accept the right of the gun user in the Lake district to shoot the fox.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

My remarks this afternoon will be brief. I gave my reasons for opposing a ban on hunting in the Adjournment debate on the Burns report on 7 July 2000. As I said then, it is clear, on any reading of the report, that there is no animal welfare case for the banning of hunting. The report makes it clear that the only consequence of a ban would be an increased use of other methods of keeping the fox population under control which would, in the phrase made famous by the report, compromise the welfare of the fox to at least as great an extent as hunting. The arguments that I set out then ware not answered in that debate and have not been answered since. I do not believe that they can be answered.

Today, I want to make a different point. We meet to debate this issue the day after the Home Secretary announced the crime figures for the year to last September. They showed a sharp increase in violent crime and a 21 per cent. increase in robbery. The reasons for that extremely distressing development have been extensively canvassed by Opposition Members. There are 2,500 fewer police officers than there were at the time of the previous election. There is widespread demoralisation among the police. The Home Secretary has caused more than 26,000 prisoners to be released early so that they may be free to re-offend. [Interruption.] It is against that background—Labour Members do not seem to be aware of this—that the House must consider the Bill today. The Government are, in effect, telling the police, "We don't think you have enough to do. We think you have time on your hands, so we will give you an additional task, an extra burden. We will ask you to enforce a ban on an activity which has been lawful in Britain since time immemorial."

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that it is said that the Association of Chief Police Officers has made representations to the Home Secretary to the effect that, with the present resources, it could not possibly be hoped effectively to police a ban such as is proposed.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I have not seen that report and do not know whether it has been made public. It would be helpful to the House if the Minister responded to my hon. Friend's comments when he comes to reply to the debate.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer a simple question? Is he telling the House that police budgets today do not take account of the cost of policing hunts?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I do not think that there is any comparison or parallel to be drawn. The provision proposes imposing a new burden on the police of enforcing an entirely new criminal offence. That is the Government's response to the crime figures that they announced yesterday.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I remember that argument being put forward a while ago when we banned firearms. The suggestion then was that previous owners of firearms, like me, would go and shoot illegally and the police would have a big job policing that. However, that never manifested itself. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman really telling the House that if a ban is agreed by Parliament, hunters and their dogs will continue to hunt across the countryside, and that those people will commit a crime?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I am saying that the provision will impose an additional burden on the police, and that is an entirely frivolous response from the Government to the crime figures that they announced yesterday.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend see the interview that the assistant chief constable of South Yorkshire police gave to Sky News earlier today? With the diplomacy which senior officers always deploy in their public statements, he said: there's no doubt a total ban would present the police nationally and within individual forces with quite a challenge.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to my attention. I did not see that interview, but I hope that it will have an effect on the Government's responses.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am sure that, as a former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be interested to know the view of the Association of Chief Police Officers communicated to Home Office officials. It is that, by and large, the expenditure of resources on dealing with hunts and protests against hunts now is probably very similar to any costs that the police are likely to face if a ban is imposed. I am not saying that to advocate one position or another or even to disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. It is merely a point of information which, as it is ACPO's view, will no doubt interest him.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I note that the Minister's summary of ACPO's response was prefaced by the words "by and large". I hope that he will make that response public: I hope that he will put it before the House so that we can all make up our own minds about what ACPO actually said. I should much prefer that to the Minister's garbled summary of its response. I should like to see what the report itself says.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I shall give way once more, but then I must make progress.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

All the interventions that my right hon. and learned Friend has just taken on the issue of police resources ignore the fact that the police cannot cope with what they are supposed to do at present. Reference was made to people continuing to hunt illegally. However, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that that already happens? Throughout East Anglia, there is a curse of illegal hare coursing against which the police, at present, cannot enforce the law. Therefore, enforcing further bans would only make a difficult situation worse.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

My hon. Friend makes an utterly cogent point.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

No; I have been generous in giving way and I want to make progress.

The Home Secretary, apparently, is going to vote for clause 2. I shall say a few words about that provision. Anyone tempted by it should really have been put off by the fact that it has been produced by a group called the Middle Way Group. If that were not enough, Members should have been put on their guard by the fact that the leading promoter of the middle way option is the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) who, for all his many and varied qualities, is a Liberal Democrat. I thought that, in many quarters of the House, there was general recognition that few problems are not made worse by the intervention of the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, that used to be one of the few points on which the present Home Secretary and I were in almost total agreement.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

My right hon. and learned Friend might want to know that I wrote the brief that the parliamentary counsel used to draft clause 2 and schedule 2, for which I take the credit.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

With all due respect I say to my hon. Friend that even Homer nods.

I ask hon. Members to consider from the police's point of view the effect of the middle way proposal set out in clause 2. It is bad enough for the police to have to enforce a total ban, but the middle way would impose a far more complicated task on them. They would have to take a view in every case on whether the terms of the licence under which the particular hunting event in question occurred were being observed. Hon. Members should consider the nature of the burden that such a provision would impose on the police.

It beggars belief that any serious Government who face an explosion of violent crime would even contemplate distracting the police from the urgent task of tackling that problem by imposing upon them large, uncertain and impractical burdens such as those proposed in the Bill. However, this Administration are not a serious Government. If any further proof is needed that they are a trivial, frivolous and irresponsible Government, the Bill provides it. The only question that remains to be decided is whether there is a trivial, frivolous and irresponsible majority in the House. If not, clause I will be supported tonight.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

I should like to address my first point to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, although he is absent. It is not too late to be converted to the need to ban hunting with dogs. For evidence, I turn to my local evening paper, the Evening News, which carried a story yesterday about an 11-year-old girl called Sarah Jeavons, who opposed my 1997 private Member's Bill on hunting. She was eight at the time and took the day off school to plead with me to abandon plans to ban hunting with dogs. Her family were due to join the march later this year to oppose what they consider to be the Government's plans on hunting with dogs.

Mrs. Jeavons, Sarah's mum, says in the story People used to say that anti-hunt people are bad, but the pro-hunters are worse. She then goes on to relate what happened to her last Saturday: Sarah and I took our dogs for a walk on Saturday morning and, when we got back to our house, our drive was blocked. The whipper-in was on the lawn. There was a pack of terrier men in my drive and they were harassing my children. Mrs. Jeavons says that Sarah, who is now 11, was reduced to tears, that the whipper-in had to take control of her horse and that the hounds chased after her cat and tried to kill it. She now claims that she and her family are confirmed antis and will not continue to support the pro-hunt movement.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

As the events that the hon. Gentleman describes occurred in my constituency, I have done some research on them. It is no surprise that, not for the first time, he is building his house on a foundation of sand, not stone. The background is that hunt politics is brutal and that the Jeavons family had not paid their cap fees to go hunting with the Croome. They were, therefore, not allowed to do so and the story is their way of getting their own back on the hunt.

The events did not occur in the described manner. Something significantly less serious occurred. Even if they were as described—the Worcester Evening News now knows that they were not—I invite the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, contrary to the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the middle way offers a solution to such difficulties, as it would ban a hunt that breaks the terms of its licence, goes where it is not wanted or compromises public safety. I invite him also to recognise that the events were not as they are described.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

I appreciate that the Evening News has got a good story. The joint master of the local hunt is a Mr. Rob Adams. Mr. Adams is a friend of the hon. Gentleman and was, when I last spoke to him, a member of the executive committee of his Conservative association. Mr. Adams said: I can only think that this was a conflict of personalities. I must say that the events described in my local paper make that the most understated fact of the year.

4.45 pm

Option 1 represents the pro-hunt view and proposes self-regulation. I reject that view, but at least I understand where people who support option 1 are coming from. They take the view, on a "civil libertarian" basis, that the animal welfare issue is not sufficiently serious to warrant an infringement of so-called civil liberties, and that self-regulation should therefore be allowed to continue. They describe that as a principled view. It has been expressed today, mainly by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), but I reject it totally.

I do, however, agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's assessment of option 2, the middle way, which I consider to be misleading, to say the least. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) spoke of the imposition of some sort of regulatory framework. No doubt we shall discover in due course whether or not the incidents that I have described took place on Saturday, but let us say that they did. The proposals of the Middle Way Group suggest an assumption that the hunt involved would be punished in some way, and prevented from hunting again. To that I would say, "Get real"; that is not what will happen in the real world of hunting with dogs.

The Middle Way Group does not propose a compromise. When a wild mammal is chased to the point of exhaustion before being torn apart, is that really something on which we can compromise? It is not; there is no way we can reach a compromise.

As for the so-called independence of the hunting authority, the authority will be paid for by licence fees paid by people who hunt. Those who want to hunt will pay their fees and go off with their licences. The saying "He who pays the piper calls the tune" has often been quoted to me, and that is exactly what will happen in the case of the so-called independent authority. Those who hunt will be paying to keep the authority going, and I cannot think for a minute that it will suddenly turn around and say, "We do not like a certain aspect of the practice, and we will not take licence money from those who engage in it."

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I think that the hon. Gentleman's argument is flawed. It seems to me, and to many of my hon. Friends, that what is more important is the composition of the authority and its practices. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) for her assent to that proposition.

Does the hon. Gentleman, on the strength of the logic that he has employed, object profoundly to the Advertising Standards Authority, which operates on precisely the same basis?

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

We are dealing with a completely different matter.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

Let me address it. Advertising as an industry is keen to promote itself, and therefore will pay towards an independent authority. In the case of hunting, what we are apparently trying to say is that we will regulate the practice and punish those who fail. We are dealing here with an animal welfare matter, not with whether a particular advertisement should be shown on television. We are dealing with a practice that is inhumane and cruel to wild mammals.

Mr. Öpik:

rose

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

I will make a bit more progress now, but I will give way later.

The Middle Way Group wants to know whether a principled stance is being taken. Again I find myself in agreement with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. We would not be in a position to make a judgment on whether someone who is hunting is carrying a licence at the point at which the police came to investigate the activity.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

I should like to make a little more progress.

If the Middle Way Group is not careful, this is what will happen. A couple of lads in an inner-city area—let us say Perry Barr in Birmingham, for want of a better example—might well be out chasing a fox with their dogs. What is wrong is the activity itself; whether those lads had a licence in their back pockets is irrelevant.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the hunting authority would not be able to act impartially, because it is funded by hunts. I am no particular supporter of the authority—I favour self-regulation—but, on any view, the authority's membership will comprise persons nominated by the Secretary of State. It will therefore not be beholden to the hunts, although the hunts may finance them.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

I accept that the members will be the Secretary of State's appointees, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get people who are neutral on the issue, which raises passions on both sides of the argument.

Mr. Öpik:

As the hon. Gentleman knows, although we differ I respect his position. On his point about funding, does he not accept that it is simple? If an individual or organisation does not get a licence, it simply will not hunt. It will not be allowed to hunt; it will be illegal. As such, it would be difficult for them, for example, to blackmail the authority in the way that he described.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the point about the illegality of not having a licence. The Middle Way Group would make so-called criminals of people who engaged in hunting that was not licensed. One of the arguments against the Bill is that it will make criminals of so-called law-abiding citizens, but the Middle Way Group must acknowledge that it will do exactly that. The difference is that those people may not belong to the right club, or may not have the right licence. I do not care whether they wear a red jacket, a pink jacket or a donkey jacket. It is the activity that I am concerned about and that I oppose.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that two points are missing from the argument on the middle way? First, anyone who breaks the law does so of their own choice, but that is not being recognised. Parliament is not forcing anyone to commit a criminal act. Secondly, it is not about the licensing authority, but about how we would actually police the whole hunt from start to finish—from letting the dogs go until the kill. That could take four or five hours and spread over seven miles. I have not yet heard a coherent argument that that can be achieved.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

The hon. Gentleman makes his point coherently. It needs no further comment from me.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

No. I want to be brief.

Option 3, which involves a complete ban, is the most consistent and principled of the three options that we must consider. Hon. Members will have weighed up the evidence presented by Burns. I have looked at the issue since my election to the House and have not yet come across evidence to lead me to any conclusion but that hunting with dogs is cruel and unnecessary. The distress that is caused to animals leads people to make a moral judgment—I accept that—that it is time that the practice was stopped.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

My hon. Friend talks about evidence. I am sure that he has received a video recently from my noble Friend Lord Bragg of Wigton. I enjoyed the title because it was called "Eric's Tale", but the rest was a bit of a fallacy. Is he aware of a video called "Cumbrian Tales", which was shot by the BBC and shown on television'? It showed the village of Ireby, where Lord Bragg has a house. When the local shepherd, who had a problem with a rogue fox and who was pro-hunting, decided that something had to be done, he did not call for the Cumberland Farmers foxhounds—he got a number of friends together, and they flushed the fox out of the woods and shot it. Is that the right way forward?

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

Option 3 recognises that in upland areas the flushing out of a fox to be shot by a gun is more humane. It is recognised in the Bill as a way in which upland areas can deal with that issue, but it is beyond me how people can believe that dogs, when they sniff out the scent of a fox in the pursuit, can distinguish between the rogue fox that is causing the problem and a fox that happens to be in the neighbourhood—dogs are not that clever.

A private Member's Bill was introduced in 1997; then we had the Burns report, an independent inquiry; and we now have a free vote, as we did on Second Reading of that Bill, and a range of options from which to choose. I should hope that the creation of those three mechanisms will help those in another place to accept that whichever judgment the House reaches today, that judgment should prevail. They should accept that hon. Members have taken a considered and serious view of the matter.

I hope that progress will not be further frustrated. Consideration needs to be given to whether some of the threats that have been made and outlined in The Guardian today and in The Observer on Sunday are in contempt of the Committee. The threats are certainly contemptuous of hon. Members.

Four years ago, I was placed in a unique position with my private Member's Bill. I was, and still am, opposed to hunting.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman should listen to his constituents.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Labour, Worcester

That is exactly what I did. My constituents asked me, in the local newspaper, to take up the issue. I stood on an election platform declaring that I was opposed to hunting with dogs, and I had the unique opportunity of coming first in the ballot. I could have chosen another issue for my Bill. If I did so, however, how would I be able to look people in the eye and say, "I am opposed to it, but when I was given the chance I did nothing about it"? I did not do that and I would not do that. I am pleased that I took up the challenge, and I am pleased that the Government are bringing the matter to a conclusion.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I do not think that it will come as a surprise to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) if I say that I do not agree with him. I should like to put the alternative case, for allowing hunting to continue.

I have twice had an experience, which I imagine is shared by other hon. Members, of coming to the House to vote in one way but, after perhaps mistakenly listening to the debate, changing my mind. It happened to me on whether the European convention on human rights should be incorporated in United Kingdom law, and more recently on whether we should have an elected House of Lords. In both cases, as I said, I made the mistake of listening to the debate and changing my mind. I speak today in the hope—which I hope is not entirely forlorn—that I might persuade just one person who thinks that hunting should be banned to think again.

I do not hunt. I occasionally went beagling when I was a teenager. I have hunted, shot and fished very unsuccessfully, but I do not expect that I shall do any of them again. However, a great many of my constituents participate in them. I represent half of Warwickshire, a rural area in which hunting has been going on for a very long time, and a significant minority regard hunting as a right, a freedom and, indeed, a passion. The opponents of hunting do not realise how passionate those who hunt are about it. It is not only a hobby, a pastime or something that they do on Saturday afternoons. I think that their freedom to hunt is important.

As the hon. Member for Worcester said, we have a perceived conflict between animal welfare and personal liberty. I believe that personal freedom is a fundamental aspect of our citizenship. It is a fundamental part of the House's job to protect the freedoms of minorities. It is easy to protect the freedoms of majorities; they have no problem at all. However, unpopular or small minorities deserve to have their freedoms protected as well. They should not be judged by opinion polls or by what the majority of people think. If we were to legislate by opinion poll, we would have capital punishment back in a flash. I expect that the majority of Labour Members would not want to see that, and neither would I.

We cannot ban things simply because we do not like them. The only conceivable reason for banning foxhunting and removing people's fundamental freedom to hunt is that a ban is necessary on overwhelming animal welfare grounds. I do not believe that those grounds exist. I do not believe that the Burns report discloses them, and I believe that the alternatives are very probably worse.

There is a rather misplaced and cuddly notion about foxes—that they are curly things that sit on the end of one's bed and keep one warm at night—but they are killers. If hon. Members are really worried about cruelty to animals, they should be more keen to ban foxes than to ban hunting. Every year, an enormous number of animals such as lambs, piglets, chickens and ducks are gratuitously killed by foxes. Foxes do not kill only the animal that they want to eat; they kill hundreds and thousands of them. For that reason, they are judged to be vermin. They might be rather better looking vermin than rats, but they are vermin and they have to be controlled.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The hare is not vermin or a pest. The Burns report makes the point that, in hare coursing, hares are pursued for entertainment—sport. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could share with us his views on whether hare coursing should continue.

5 pm

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

The Burns report dealt with those issues. I want to focus on foxhunting. [Interruption.] I shall make a short speech about one aspect of the issue, and that aspect is foxhunting. If the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce a Bill to ban hare coursing alone, and which would not cover foxhunting, that can be discussed. I wish to deal with the issue of foxhunting, because it affects a great many of my constituents.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Is not the truth that all country and field sports are the same, and that no sensible distinction can be made between angling, shooting and foxhunting? They stand or fall together, and those of us who stand for freedom should defend them all.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I intend to move on to some of the anomalies in the attitudes of those who think that foxhunting should be banned.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I want to deal with one matter first.

The animal welfare issue is fundamental to the argument of those who want to ban hunting. Anyone with any knowledge of the countryside knows that the alternatives are worse. At the end of a hunt, a fox is either dead or alive, but trapping and shooting often leave foxes injured. People who want to ban foxhunting must show that it is more cruel and contrary to the animal's welfare than shooting or trapping. I contend that it is not.

Trapping is a horrible process. Foxes in traps bite off their own legs. They are quite smart: they inhale to help themselves get out, only to find that the trap tightens on them when they have to breathe again. Such deaths are horrible and revolting, and much worse than death by hunting. However, if animals have to be controlled, some way of killing them has to be found. I contend that foxhunting is undoubtedly the most efficient method.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

The hon. Gentleman is clearly not aware that not all foxes are killed by hunting with hounds. Far from it: most foxes are shot, trapped or poisoned. That will remain so whether hunting continues or not.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Poisoning is, in fact, already illegal, but I am aware of what the hon. Gentle man says. I consider that, if the Bill goes through, about 14,000 foxes killed by hunts each year will be trapped or shot.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

No, I want to move on. The hon. Gentleman spoke at length on Second Reading, and may get a chance to speak later today.

The illogicality of the opposition to foxhunting lies not only in the question of whether the alternatives are worse or better, but in our attitude to different animals. Mice and rats are vermin, and I doubt that any hon. Member would hesitate to poison or trap them, even though the deaths involved are pretty unpleasant.

The truth is that most wild animals have, and are, predators. The approach of those who support the Bill is illogical. Why are fishing and shooting not covered by the Bill? I suspect that the answer is that 4 million people fish and 1 million people shoot. I suspect, too, that they will be next on the list, and I suggest that those who shoot and fish had better join those who support hunting.

I know that the Prime Minister has said that he has no intention of banning shooting and fishing, but the anti-hunting lobby is open about its agenda, and its supporters say that, once they have banned hunting, they will aim to nail the next target.

Why do we not outlaw halal butchery, which is a revoltingly cruel practice? The answer has to do with the sensibilities of an ethnic minority, and I happen to think that that is right. However, we are sensible to the rights and beliefs of that minority, but not to the rights and beliefs of those who hunt. Why do we not outlaw battery hens? A hunted fox might meet a pretty unpleasant end, but it does not live a disgusting life for three or six months in 6 sq ins of space.

We keep two cats in south Warwickshire, and I expect that they do far more damage to the local wildlife than the hunt. Cats are cruel animals: they do not merely kill their victims, but injure them and then play with them. That shows the illogicality of the Bill's approach: for example, it allows dogs to be used to flush out wild mammals that can then be killed by a bird of prey.

I could take the proposition advanced in the Bill from a vegetarian who wears plastic shoes and does not believe that even mosquitoes should be killed. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) may fit into the category, but is the Bill really about animal welfare?

If we examine the animal welfare issues at stake, we experience difficulty in concluding t hat the other options are better. I ask right hon. and hon. Members who are in favour of the Bill whether it is really the welfare of the fox that they are concerned about, or is it that they do not like people who hunt and the whole process of it? I think that there is a prejudice here. I dc not say that in an insulting or rude way; I merely ask people to consider it because in the arguments on the ism that I have had, that has, very often, been the truth.

I should like to say a few words about the Warwickshire hunt. I am not speaking for myself, except in the sense that the diminishment of the freedoms of my fellow citizens diminishes mine. My primary purpose in speaking is because a hunt has existed in Warwickshire for hundreds of years. Every week about 200 people ride with the hunt—probably not the same 200 every week—another 50 or 100 support it on foot and there are many other supporters.

The hunt contains a cross-section of the community, with very many ordinary people taking part. There are not enough toffs in Warwickshire to send 200 out a week with grooms and changes of horses. Most people look after their own horse. It has 100 to 120 hounds, which, of course, will be killed if the Bill goes through. [Interruption.] They will be killed. They are no use as pets because they are pack animals.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

The hon. Gentleman no doubt already knows that hunting dogs are killed routinely in mid-term in their lives anyway, and are killed as puppies if they show no intention to hunt when they are in the cubbing season. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said that it will put into place procedures to ensure that dogs are rehoused in the event—[Interruption.] A lot of right hon. and hon. Members are shaking their heads, but that is the case. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that those dogs face a much better future than if they stay with the hunt, where they will certainly be destroyed?

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Will the hon. Gentleman give me a commitment that if the Bill goes through he will take one of the hounds of the Warwickshire hunt and keep it as a pet in his house? They make very unsatisfactory pets.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

I take dog responsibility very seriously, and I have my own pets. A dog is for life, not just for a debate. However, I give the hon. Gentleman this pledge—that in association with the RSPCA, I will play my part.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

I do not think that that was an unequivocal yes.

The fact is that those dogs would go. Many jobs would go—seven full-time people work there, and, if the Burns report is right, there are probably 40 jobs on average associated with the hunt. They are very respectable people, not louts and hooligans.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

No, I should like to make some progress because I know that a lot of other people want to speak.

I am not speaking about louts and hooligans who get drunk at football matches and smash up the town. These people care for the countryside. Many are farmers who own and look after the countryside. They keep dogs and horses.

A hunt is also a force in the community. It is an institution of rural society. It is about much more than just hunting. On Monday, the Prime Minister was on an estate in the east end of London and he talked about rebuilding our cities. He said that he thought that communities operated best when empowered to control their own destiny. I wonder why that is not so for the countryside. Hunting is a powerful institution in the countryside. It binds the rural society together in a way that other institutions do not.

If we ban hunting, we must face not only the issues of personal liberty and animal welfare but the consequences of our actions. The RSPCA will have to find 20,000 hounds nice loving homes, like that of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), or they will have to be killed. I think that it is more likely that most of them will be killed because they do not make successful pets, particularly after being a member of a pack of hounds.

According to the Burns report, about 14,000 jobs, some of them part-time, are at stake, connected with blacksmiths, saddlers, vets and stables. National hunt racing will be seriously threatened. There will be far fewer horses because many people who hunt will not keep horses if hunting is made illegal. The result of everything that we would be giving away or sacrificing would be that about 14,000 foxes would be shot or trapped instead of being hunted and killed by hounds. They will not be saved. Those 14,000 foxes will not be alive at the end of the year when they would otherwise have been dead. They will have been trapped or shot instead, and 70,000 to 80,000 people who hunt or participate in hunting will have lost what, to them, is a valuable freedom. The consequences are not only practical—I believe that personal freedom is fundamental.

Last year, the House spent an enormous amount of its time, perfectly correctly, debating the age of consent for homosexuals. I do not know how many homosexual men between the ages of 16 and 18 will take advantage of that legislation. I suspect that only a few thousand, if that, will do so. Some 80,000 will be directly affected by this Bill. When we talk about individuals' freedom to behave as they want, we cannot take just the people with whom we agree and dismiss the rest. We have to consider personal freedom across the waterfront, and we have to be very careful about taking it away.

It seems to me that the welfare gain for foxes is at best zero. It is probably negative, because trapping and shooting are worse than hunting. Freedom must prevail. If prejudice prevails and the banners win the argument, what will be next? Fishing and shooting, I am sure, will be next. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Hon. Members say no, but it will be the next campaign.

I personally feel about boxing all the things that people feel about hunting. I find it barbaric. I feel that it demeans humans, but if people want to do it, they should be free to do so. I do not want to do it; I do not want to watch it; but I believe that people who do should be absolutely free to do it.

I started one of the notes that I made for today by saying that the ban would not affect me. In the sense that I do not hunt, it will not. However, it will affect me because if we take away part of my neighbours' freedom, we take away part of mine, and we are all involved in each other's freedom and the concept of personal freedom.

What about my children? I have young children. My daughter is mad about ponies, for some reason that I cannot understand and try to disabuse her of. What if she decides that she wants to hunt? Why should her generation be the first in Warwickshire for hundreds of years—no, for ever—not to be allowed to hunt?

I hope that those who propose the Bill will reflect carefully on whether they really believe that the animal welfare gain outweighs the loss of personal freedom. The freedoms of minorities may be ours legally to dispose of by legislation, but surely our duty to protect and defend those freedoms is far more important.

The House has a long and honourable tradition of defending liberties, especially those of minorities, and it should not take them away for no clear or obvious benefit or gain, even for the foxes.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

If the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) reads the Burns report, he will see that Burns says that shooting and lamping is preferable to hunting. So there are alternatives. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about snares. Snaring is an appalling thing. I wish to see snaring completely removed from the countryside as fast as possible.

The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that foxes were killers. Yes, they are. That is how nature made them. It is true that they do a lot of damage where they can get into areas such as hen coops. It is up to farmers to husband their animals properly. I saw a fox in my garden in Forest Gate. For those who lo not know where Forest Gate is—they might get it from the name—it is at the edge of Epping forest. We see foxes fairly regularly. I was appalled, and wondered how the fox had got in. They are canny creatures, as the hon. Member for Stratfordon-Avon said.

I have made sure, as best as I can possibly manage, that my cats are kept in at night so that they do not get caught by the fox. The fox will certainly go for them if he gets an opportunity. We just have to be aware that the fox is how nature made it, Accommodate it in the way in which we look after our gardens or farms, and make sure that we protect our pets and animals. That is how nature intended it to be, and it is the best way of proceeding.

I shall support option 3 and a total ban, which is hardly a surprise. I shall vote against both options 1 and 2. I hope that all my hon. Friends on both sides of the House on this argument will do exactly the same.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

I am pleased to count the hon. Gentleman as a friend, but he has just accepted that foxes do damage. Does he accept that the fox population has to be controlled, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said in his admirable speech?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham 5:15 pm, 17th January 2001

There are other ways of controlling the fox population. We should be prepared to live with foxes as a fact of nature, and take the necessary precautions to protect our property and our animals, whether in farming, rural or urban areas. When it can clearly be shown that foxes are a nuisance; and are doing damage, there are alternatives to hunting them. The Burns report made a clear and categorical statement regarding the alternatives, which ought to be closely examined.

I shall vote for the total ban, as I have consistently done, and oppose the other two options. I hope that everyone on my side of the argument will do the same, because there is no middle way. In many ways, the debate is superfluous. We have been round this course time after time. Perhaps we could simply put the matter to the vote and go off and have a decent dinner. Unfortunately, that is not how these matters operate, so we shall just have to go through the motions yet again.

I am opposed to hunting and will support a total ban because, in the end, the issue is cruelty and nothing else. I was fascinated by that well-quoted euphemism from the Burns report, about the welfare of the fox being "seriously compromised". I recently made an involuntary contribution to the unofficial economy in my constituency—in other words, I was mugged. We should be very careful about the use of euphemisms. Hunting is about cruelty, which is why I shall vote for option 3.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman said why it would be right to ban foxhunting on the ground of cruelty, but not to ban pheasant shooting and coarse fishing on the same ground.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

Exactly the same interventions and arguments are being made, and they will get exactly the same response that I gave when I was asked that question before. A line has to be drawn. There is a difference between angling and hunting foxes, or hare coursing: first, one does not hunt fish with dogs; and, secondly, a decent angler—there are some on this side of the argument; I used to call myself a very good angler—puts the fish back. The better the angler, the less the damage inflicted on the fish. I was a coarse fisherman—as you would expect, Mr. Lord—and I would often, on certain stretches of river and canal, catch the same creature.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

No, I shall not. That would just take up a lot of time. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not going to convince me, and I am not going to convince him. I shall answer his question as I have answered those of other hon. Members—straightforwardly.

Angling cannot be compared in any way with foxhunting. There is no intention on this side of the House, or in any of the organisations with which I am concerned, to move on to ban shooting or angling. The Prime Minister has said that, and if one cannot take that—

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position that it is not true. I can tell her that I do not intend to get involved in a campaign to ban angling.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), who represents the rural confines of Hackney.

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Is my hon. Friend aware that Quintin Hogg, the father of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), wrote in "The Case for Conservatism": Conservatives do not believe that the political struggle is the most important thing in life … The simplest of them prefer foxhunting …

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

Like father, like son, is all I can say to that.

One of the points that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon would not accept is that the argument is not just about foxhunting. In many ways, we have allowed it to be hijacked by the Countryside Alliance and the media. How could anyone, particularly in the Middle Way Group, justify hare coursing? Hares are neither pests nor vermin. They are not vicious, wicked creatures, as has been said about foxes. Why on earth would anyone want to see a hare ripped to pieces for pleasure? I do not understand that—I cannot wrap my mind around it. Why does not the Middle Way Group have an alternative proposal on that issue? It does not even have an opinion on it. We need to remind people about that.

Deer hunting is not mentioned much in these debates—nor is mink hunting. We are talking about cruelty to animals—

Mr. Öpik:

rose

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

Patience.

The debate is about cruelty to animals, not just about foxhunting.

Mr. Öpik:

As I have pointed out previously, the Middle Way Group has great concern about hare coursing and, at the prompting of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), we included it under the regulatory framework. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) will be aware that the secret of effective legislation is not to hide behind false certainties; it is to admit that there are difficult aspects, such as hare coursing, and to attempt to find an equitable solution. We do not claim that we have got it right, but we are at least trying to tackle the issue transparently and openly, and we invite feedback.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I have previously said to the supporters of the so-called middle way that we cannot license cruelty—that is what their proposals would amount to. The idea that we should have a licensing regime for hare coursing is to perpetuate complete nonsense.

The hon. Gentleman is right: there are problems. When the Bill goes into Standing Committee upstairs, the whole point of the proceedings will be to eliminate those problems—if, as I suspect, we vote for a complete ban. There are problems. Notwithstanding the obstructions that will, no doubt, be placed before us by Conservative Members or by pro-hunting members of the Committee, we shall have to try to answer serious questions about how the ban will be enforced. I admit that there are difficulties, but the Standing Committee must address those.

Exactly the same arguments were made when the House debated bull baiting. George Canning was very much in favour of allowing bulls to be baited. It was argued that the pursuit was a sport; that it concerned the rights of minorities and of the individual; that the bull enjoyed it—[Laughter.] I do not tell a lie, Mr. Lord—would I do that in this place? The Official Report of the time stated that the bull enjoyed bull baiting and it was a good way of training dogs.

We have heard the same arguments time after time. When we eventually get rid of these terrible blood sports—foxhunting, hare coursing, mink hunting and deer hunting—people will read these debates and wonder why on earth these barbaric practices were propagated and supported.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Instead of diverting the Committee with bygone days and the cruelties of the urban lower classes—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ooh!"]—would the hon. Gentleman address the question in the Bill as to why it is cruel to hunt a rabbit with a dog but not with a falcon?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

There are a number of reasons. One point about rabbit hunting is that, quite often, the rabbits get eaten—if not by dogs, by the people who shoot them. That argument is also made about pheasant shooting. I would not go shooting; it is one of the reasons that I am a vegetarian. If one had to kill one's own meat, many more people might convert to vegetarianism—[Interruption.] An hon. Member says that I would not kill a mosquito. I certainly would, because I have never understood why God's great vision of creation had to include mosquitos or wasps. But it did and I do not hesitate to kill them.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Would the hon. Gentleman kill a rat?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I do not want to make my speech too anecdotal, but my cat, Buzz, brought in a live rat the other night. My wife phoned me while I was in the House to ask me what to do about it and I told her to try to catch it. I got home late—as one does during this current period of modernisation in the House—to find that the cat had brought the rat back again. So I caught the rat alive, put in a tin and tipped it over to next door. I could not bring myself to kill the rat, although I was not prepared to offer it the hospitality of my home.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Will my hon. Friend confirm to the Committee that he lives next door to the local Conservative club?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

The rats would have been coming over to my garden if that were the case. No, I do not confirm that; there are no Conservatives in my constituency—or very few.

I was listening to a debate—[Interruption.] I think that that might be my mobile phone. I apologise, Mr. Lord; I forgot to turn it off.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his apology, because we take a very dim view of mobile phones in the Chamber. If Members cannot switch off their phones, they should leave them outside.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I can switch off my phone. I inadvertently forgot to do so, but I have done so now, Mr. Lord. Perhaps my neighbours were trying to phone me, having just heard that I put a rat over their fence.

I listened to a series of items on the "Today" programme, and I was moved to complain to its duty producer because I thought that the issue was handled disgracefully. The programme started at 7 o'clock with an interview from the west country, where a cub reporter was sent to ask patsy questions such as, "Isn't it horrible that these horrible people are doing horrible things?" An individual hunt supporter was interviewed and said, "This is only about animal welfare. It is as simple as that." She said that 20,000 hounds will be killed if the Bill is passed. She used the euphemism, "put to sleep." Why should those animals be killed?

We know that the hunts kill their own animals at the age of five to six because they are not fast enough to keep up with the horses. They kill puppies if they do not show a proclivity for hunting and slaughtering foxes. The nature of those animals is being distorted by the way that the hunts train them to hunt and kill. If that is not a perversion of nature or of the character of noble creatures, I do not know what is. Such things have to be borne in mind.

The hon. Member for Stratford—on—Avon may be interested to know that the animal welfare organisations can find homes for those 20,000 dogs. I am certain of that. The sabs managed to hide 46 beagles the other day, and no one has found out where they have gone. I do not approve of that action, but 46 beagles managed to disappear, so I am sure that decent hunt members who love animals will be prepared to house those dogs, and other people who low animals will do likewise. However, if people go over to drag hunting, they will not have to kill any of those dogs.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

Finding homes for those animals will be much more difficult than the hon. Gentleman thinks—if not impossible. Can he give the House the assurance, which I sought front the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), that he and Buzz will be prepared to share their home with a foxhound?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

I will consult my two cats, but I doubt whether they will be prepared to live with a dog. I would love to have a dog, but the life style of Members of Parliament, especially if one is an assiduous Member, is not conducive to keeping dogs in an urban area. That is one of the problems Perhaps I could take a few dogs when I move to a more rural area. I would love to do so because they make wonderful companions.

To return to the "Today" programme, the subsequent interview was with Lord Mancroft, who showed total contempt in his approach to the will of the House, the suggestion being the t whatever we did was irrelevant because the other place will ensure that the Bill goes nowhere. My colleagues on the Front Bench should think about that, because we are the elected Chamber; we represent the majority view, both in rural and urban areas, not those at the other end of the Palace. Frankly, the comments that were made on the programme this morning were disgraceful, but least Lord Mancroft has given notice of what we are likely to face when the Bill leaves the House with a total ban in place. I hope that those on the Front Bench will put such a ban in the manifesto and be prepared to implement the Parliament Acts when, I hope, a Labour Government are returned after the next general election.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I should like to return to the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the way in which hunts look after hounds. He may be interested to know that the New Forest hunt has been manifestly more successful in killing its own hounds during meets than it has in catching foxes. It has killed twice as many of its own hounds as it has foxes during the past 26 meets.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

That does not surprise me. The idea that hunt members are kind to their dogs is nonsense. The evidence reflects that. We know how they get killed and maimed, and are put down when they are not good enough or fast enough to keep up with the hunt.

5.30 pm

On the "Today" programme, Mr. Naughtie, who is generally a decent fellow, said to, I think, Lord Mancroft, "Don't the people who hate hunting really hate people like you? Isn't that the gist of it? Isn't that what it's really about?" Several Conservative Members nod in agreement, but it is not about us personally hating people who hunt, but about personally hating hunting. I am sure that some pretty unpleasant people are pro-hunting, but there are probably some pretty unpleasant people who are anti-hunting. We do not legislate on the basis of whether we like people. If we did—my God—we would be working here non-stop, 365 days a year. There are an awful lot of people I do not like, but they are not all hunters.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is no longer present—it is about half-past five, so it is an early dinner call—but how could anyone hate him? Yet he is passionately pro-hunting, though not himself a hunter—a horse could not be found that was stout enough for him, and shire horses, although stout, are not fast enough. He gives us hours of harmless fun in the Chamber and elsewhere. I confessed in an earlier debate to loving him in—I repeat—a non-erotic way.

The hon. Gentleman was not always against change in the countryside. When he was an Agriculture Minister, he said: The countryside cannot be preserved in aspic, to which I said: If it were you would eat it!—[Official Report, 3 December 1992; Vol. 215, c. 382.] He certainly recognised that change comes about, and we will ensure that this change happens tonight.

This is not a class issue, and it insults our intelligence, principles and positions to say that t is. There used to be hunts in mining communities. Hare coursing is not a class issue, and I was as bitterly opposed to that practice as I am to foxhunting. Cruelty to animals is my only motivation.

As for the middle way, I checked the Division list and do not understand why its three main protagonists voted against Second Reading. Had they succeeded, we would never have been able to consider their nonsense alternative. What will they do tonight when we vote on the first option? If they support it, they will lose the middle way option. They are deceiving themselves and are trying to deceive the rest of us. When I consider their arguments, I realise that they are just apologists for hunting. That is all they are.

Quite frankly, their arguments will be rejected by anyone who understands the issue end by the country at large—as, indeed, they have been rejected by people who are in favour of keeping hunting more or less as it is in option 1, which allows for self-regulation, and by the Countryside Alliance. I am sure that we shall vote against the middle way option. Let us get rid of that nonsense and apply ourselves to putting through and making work what the House and the country want—a total ban on hunting.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). The gain for the Back Benches is the loss of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, where he was the Minister for Sport—although definitely not the Minister for bloodsports.

Since my election as a Member of Parliament in 1997, I have received more correspondence on hunting than on any other issue, and that has continued over the past week or so. The representations have been both for and against hunting. It is clearly an important issue to the constituents of all Members of Parliament, whatever their particular view. It might also be significant to members of the public because we have a free vote, which gives us the opportunity for once to act without the guidance of Whips. Under those circumstances, the vote might be more real than would otherwise be the case. Because the issue is of concern to the public at large and because we are to have a free vote in which Members' votes will count, the onus is on us all to consider the issue properly and to reach a sensible conclusion that will satisfy our integrity.

The Liberal Democrat party is no different from the Conservative party and the Labour party in the sense that we have proponents of all three options sitting on our Benches. It is right that we should do so and right that Members should be able to express different opinions. When the Liberal Democrats discussed the issue at our conference, a majority of delegates were in favour of a complete ban. However, it has always been understood, in the House and elsewhere that we, like the other two parties, will not have a whipped vote on this issue. It is regarded as a matter of conscience.

I support the third option, but I wish to express my cynicism about the timing of the Bill's introduction. There has been a great clamour for legislation on hunting since before the last general election. The implication in the Labour party's manifesto was that legislation would be introduced early, but we had to rely on the courage of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to introduce a private Member's Bill. There was a huge vote in the House in favour of a ban, but the Government took no action. They may be acting now only because the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) encouraged them to do so by the amendments that he tabled to other legislation.

Most Members recognise that—whether people are in favour of or against the Bill—it is unlikely to reach the statute book before the next election. We must therefore ask why the Bill has been introduced at this time. Its introduction is gesture politics, and I am sorry to say that because I strongly support the third option. It is almost an abuse of the House to introduce the Bill knowing that it cannot become law before the general election. It has been introduced not for animal welfare reasons but for reasons of low politics.

However, it is up to each Member to assess the Bill and to reach his or her own conclusions. Like other Members, I have tried to do that honestly and I have applied a personal sequential test to determine my conclusions. I start from the premise from which many other people start. It is wrong to ban things unless there is a very good reason to do so. We simply cannot go round banning everything that we may not happen to like.

The test is whether the damage or harm caused by not banning something is greater than the loss of freedom that will result from a ban. I am convinced that that test is met in this case. Anyone who has seen the evidence of what happens to foxes and hares—hon. Members have been right to make the point about hares—cannot be in any doubt about the barbarity of the hunt and its consequences for the animals involved. It is indefensible to say that hunting should be allowed to continue. In some ways, it is even more indefensible to suggest that it should be licensed.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

The hon. Gentleman is dealing with the issue of cruelty and saying that hunting is barbaric. Many hon. Members hoped that the Burns report would say the same, but it did not say anything of the kind, and nor did the Scott Henderson report under Mr. Attlee's Government. Should the hon. Gentleman not consider the objective view of independent people before he calls for the removal of the rights of tens of thousands of people?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Burns inquiry's terms of reference did not ask it to ascertain whether hunting was barbaric, but the report made it clear that hunting compromised the welfare of the fox. As the hon. Member for West Ham suggested, other methods of dealing with foxes are less invidious.

It has long been established in society that it is right to take into account the impact of humans on animals in deciding whether to legislate. For example, many years ago, we decided as a society to outlaw bear baiting and cock fighting, because they were deemed to be unacceptable sports. Foxhunting and hare coursing are similar in that regard. The principle has been established that, if animal welfare is compromised to such a degree, it is justifiable for a human freedom to be removed.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's unremitting campaign on animal welfare during this Parliament. Does he agree, however, with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), who has now left the Chamber, that on the spectrum of animal cruelty in our society there are many activities that inflict much greater harm than hunting, including the killing of 4 million animals in experimentation and the breeding of 800 million broiler chickens in unimaginable circumstances of dire cruelty?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Of course I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the way in which animals are treated in vivisection laboratories and in some aspects of farming. Sadly, however, we are not faced with a protection of animals Bill that would deal with all those matters in a unified way across Departments. The Bill before us deals with a relatively narrow aspect and we must address ourselves to that rather than to what we would like to see in legislation. I would like wider legislation, and I can press for it, but we are not dealing with that today.

My conclusion was that preventing the suffering of animals outweighed the human freedom that the Bill would remove. I asked myself whether there are offsetting factors that suggest that hunting should be allowed to continue. The issue of employment has been raised by people in rural areas, not least by those in my constituency, and I am concerned about it. The Burns report said that the number of people whose jobs would be affected had been considerably overestimated by the Countryside Alliance but that is not to say that nobody will be affected, and we should take account of those people in our formulations.

The second factor is whether the impact on the social structure and on people's way of life is such that, notwithstanding the impact of hunting on animals, it is right to protect it because it is so important to those people. I understand that the hunt is the centre of some people's social activities, and that will be removed if the third option becomes law. I will be sorry if that social structure is removed, but the arguments in its favour do not justify cruelty to animals. However, no one has mentioned drag hunting today, and there is no reason why members of a social structure who want to come together to hunt and to go through the associated rituals, such as drinking from the stirrup cup, should not continue to do so. No one is suggesting that such activity should be outlawed; we can have the spectacle without the death. That is a reasonable way to proceed.

Mr. Öpik:

To return to the argument about cruelty versus civil liberties, is my hon. Friend rejecting Lord Burns's assessment that in at least some areas, such as upland Wales, hunting with dogs is an acceptable, and probably the most effective, way of controlling the numbers of foxes?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My point was about cruelty, and my hon. Friend's point is about control, a matter to which I now turn. I visited my local hunt kennels to talk to the people there. They told me that they catch about 50 foxes a year, which may be an optimistic figure. That would make very little impact on the fox population locally, and we know that nationally only about 5 per cent. of foxes are dealt with by hunts.

Members of the hunt often say to me that they are maintaining the fox population by removing the weakest of the species, so we should be grateful to them. At other times they say that they are removing a pest that causes massive damage. Those two arguments are contradictory, and need to be made clearer. I do not believe that killing 5 per cent. of foxes nationally or 50 foxes in my constituency makes much difference to the number of foxes. The argument about control is a bit of a red herring.

Returning to my hon. Friend's point, there are areas where the argument for control is stronger. That brings me on to the Welsh Assembly and the amendment tabled by Plaid Cymru Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] They are not present, although I am sure they are watching the debate on the screens in their offices. It is perfectly proper for the Welsh Assembly to take a view on the matter, and I am uncomfortable about this House deciding for Wales what should happen in the uplands. I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth 5:45 pm, 17th January 2001

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the devolution settlement. There is plenty of opportunity for Members of the Welsh Assembly and the Assembly as whole to reach a view, but it is for this House to take the decision. Indeed, the Assembly Member who represents my constituency has expressed a strong wish that the House should take the decision in a way that makes sense in both England and Wales. Yes, we should listen, but that is different from trying to abrogate responsibility in respect of Wales.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do understand the settlement. However, I suggest first, that the House can, It any time, move on or take a different view if it wants to; and secondly, that that might be appropriate in the current case. If the House passes the amendment, it would be entirely proper for the House to take a view on whether the settlement should revisited in that respect.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman has said, and I agree, that we should be careful about legislating for the Welsh uplands. Does he agree that, by the same argument, Members representing Scottish constituencies should not vote on the Bill, which does not apply to their constituencies, but applies exclusively to England and Wales?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am being tempted down a constitutional road that I prefer not to take. I have dealt with the Welsh point as best I can. The Minister answered the point fully and satisfactorily and I should prefer not to delay the Committee by dwelling on it.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

is my hon. Friend saying that voting for the proposal tabled by our colleagues from Wales is acceptable to him, and that, although he opposes hunting because it is cruel, he is prepared to see the Welsh allow hunting to continue if their Assembly votes for it? I cannot understand his argument. We have a chance to get rid of hunting in England and Wales, which is what we all want to happen.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I make no secret of the fact that I should like hunting to be banned in Wales and everywhere else in the world if possible, but I recognise that devolution is with us. It is entirely proper that people should be responsible for activities carried out in their own area—and not the House, not the Committee, not any hon. Member nor I should try to impose our views on our colleagues in Wales.

We have two substantive options, both of which are intellectually honest; both are held with fervour, and I understand why. One is that hunting should be banned and the other is that it should be allowed to continue. Those are the only options before us today, because, with all due respect to my colleagues, there is no middle way. I am not knocking those proposals—that has been done by others and people can make up their own minds. I think that the proposals are a little threadbare in places, but that is not for me to say. I think that the middle way is a bit of spin—there is no middle way. The proposals might be justified, but they are merely a variation of the option to allow hunting to continue. The choice before us today is between one option to ban hunting and two to keep it. There can be no middle way on matters of principle such as hunting.

I did not manage to intervene on the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who has now left the Chamber. He, rightly, condemns those who have broken the law and behaved in a criminal manner towards those who are engaged in a currently lawful activity, namely, hunting. I do not condone breaking the law to disrupt an activity that remains legal. However, the hon. Gentleman, the Conservative party and others who are in favour of hunting must also condemn those who make remarks of the sort that I heard on "Farming Today" early this morning: that they are hunting now and that, if hunting is banned, they will continue to do so. They argue that it is entirely wrong for those who oppose hunting to break the law as it stands, but that it would be perfectly legitimate for them to break the law if hunting were banned. Their position would be stronger if they pledged to uphold the law both before and after the Bill has been passed.

As for the House of Lords, ours is the elected Chamber. The House has already voted once, by a very large margin, to ban hunting, and unless I am greatly mistaken, it will do so again tonight. It is improper for an unelected House—marginally reformed or not—to try to dictate to our Chamber and tell us what to do during a free vote. I hope that their lordships will think carefully before attempting to interfere with votes in the House of Commons.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker). I did not understand some of it—particularly his logic, to which the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) drew attention.

I spoke in the debate on 7 July on the Burns report. It was a good and constructive debate. For me, the Burns report has clarified two important issues. The first is whether foxhunting is a pest-control issue and the second is about economics, to which the Countryside Alliance has drawn attention on so many occasions. I felt that it was concluded by some that on pest control the Burns report was pretty straight but did not take us forward. The report arrives at the conclusion that foxhunting does not contribute to the control of foxes, and I agree.

Much more important, on the economics of the issue the Burns report torpedoes the arguments that the Countryside Alliance has had us thinking about. In the Committee on which I was pleased to serve and which considered the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) in 1997–98, we heard time and again from hon. Members, some of whom are in the Chamber, about job losses. They were always saying that there would be 16,000 jobs lost, whereas the Burns report refers to 700 or 800 directly related jobs being lost. That is fundamental to the debate.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I thought that would enlighten the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I, too, served on the Committee that considered the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), and we talked a great deal about jobs. Lord Burns concludes that about 7,500 full-time equivalent jobs will be lost, in addition to many part-time and associated jobs. By any standards, the arithmetic produces a total of about 12,000 to 13,000 jobs. That is slightly short of 15,000, the figure which I used repeatedly in Committee. Job losses will be of the order of 10,000 to 15,000. The arithmetic can be sorted out; to talk about 750 job losses is blatantly misleading.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I have enjoyed these debates for the past four years. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a quotation. The Burns report states that in the short term as few as 700 jobs and a proportion of about 1,500 direct equivalent jobs are supported by hunt-related activities. There will not be 16,000 job losses. The figure is quite clear, and one that it is difficult for the House to ignore.

The purpose of the Committee is to scrutinise each of the three proposals. I shall start in the middle. For some time I have been thinking, "What is the middle way, about which we have heard so much?" Three Members, one from each of the major parties, have put it together. I thought that perhaps they had a case. Perhaps I should give them the opportunity to state it; perhaps they want to state their case. However, they failed because they all voted against giving the Bill a Second Reading. At that moment they ceased to have the right to put their case. They did not want the debate to take place today. The position of the hon. Member for Lewes—I find myself in agreement with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on this—is that there are only two legitimate positions. The first is to continue hunting, which many Members who served on the Standing Committee during 1997–98 wanted, and the second is an outright ban. Those are the only two legitimate positions that are credible.

Mr. Öpik:

I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman's logic in being concerned about me and two others voting against Second Reading, and why that makes him sceptical about the content of clause 2. I shall be interested to hear why specifically the hon. Gentleman thinks that clause 2 is an ineffective proposition.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to intervene as often as he likes to tell me why he, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) voted as they did on Second Reading, which was to facilitate the current debate. They voted to stop us having this debate. If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell us, we shall all be interested.

Mr. Öpik:

There is no secret. We stated at the beginning of the day that, subject to there being a genuine debate on Second Reading, when hon. Members on both sides of the House were present to listen and apparently to be guided by the quality of discussion, we would vote in favour. I promise the hon. Gentleman that we meant that sincerely. At one point during that debate there were 24 Members in the Chamber, and at no point were more than a quarter of all hon. Members present. We thus expressed the objection that we stated clearly on the morning of that debate. If the hon. Gentleman has a different view, I respect that, but I hope that at least he recognises that we were expressing an objection on the basis of principle.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that apparent explanation. I cannot find in Hansard what the hon. Gentleman describes. He can try to refer to a column, but he will not find it. The vote of the hon. Gentleman, of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire against Second Reading showed that they did not want this debate. The middle way is just another version of foxhunting.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I understand the vantage point from which the hon. Gentleman is approaching the issue. I richly enjoyed the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I do not want to cavil—I respect the good intentions of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik)—but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that there is an important difference between legitimacy and credibility. Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that while there are, in my view, only two credible positions—the status quo or a ban—it is wrong to suggest that an honourably held view in support of the middle way is somehow illegitimate? It is incredible, but it is not illegitimate.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I am not sure that I said it was incredible.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman said that it was illegitimate.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I meant to say that it was incredible.

I do not understand how we can have two options to maintain hunting and one option to ban it, but that is what we are talking about. The middle way would not ban hunting. When I conclude my remarks, I hope to have explained to the House why there should be a total ban on hunting. That is where I am coming from.

Despite what has been said by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), I still cannot understand why he, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire voted against Second Reading. Once the Bill had received a Second Reading, we were allowed to have today's debate and to take matters forward. I understand the position of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I also understand that of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and who supported us. I understand the position of both the hon. Member and the right hon. Member. However, I do not understand why the Middle Way Group voted against Second Reading, which facilitated the debate. I think that that makes the group's position incredible.

Mr. Öpik:

I happen to have the relevant Hansard. I said: To have an opinion, one must listen to the debate and know what people have said. Few of the hon. Members who will vote on the Second Reading have stayed in the Chamber for much of the debate. At one point, the number in here went down to 25. I finished by saying: The Middle Way Group wants, more than anything else, to have a rational, wide-ranging debate in which the hon. Members who go through the Lobby—whether they are for or against the Bill— at least do so having heard the debate. That does not happen if hon. Members do not turn up.—[Official Report, 20 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 454.].

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution and clarification. I am not questioning what he said. Instead, I am questioning what he and his temporary hon. Friends, whatever they want to be called, actually did. In effect, they voted against the continuation of the debate in this place and outside.

Photo of John McFall John McFall Labour/Co-operative, Dumbarton

I am trying to understand the logic of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). I still cannot understand why he voted against the Bill on Second Reading. In the past, the hon. Gentleman has been helpful in his comments about the Government's position on Northern Ireland. I have been in the Chamber when there have been two or three Labour Members and only one Opposition Member, but we have passed legislation. The idea that the hon. Gentleman needs a certain quorum in the House is not acceptable. I think that he needs another reason. Will he comment?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

If I give the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire any more opportunities, he will be hanging himself, and we do not believe in capital punishment.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I shall try the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire who has just returned to the Chamber.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I apologise for not being present; I was serving on a Standing Committee. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) has a point because it was a difficult decision. I know that it is unusual in the House, but I shall be honest with the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). We took the view that to vote for the Bill would be seen by the outside world as a vote against hunting. I make no secret of the fact that I want to retain hunting. A decision was made on the perception of the vote by the outside world. I agree that the intellectual arguments were in favour of casting a vote for the Bill. It was a difficult decision, but I still think that I made the right one.

6 pm

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

We have finally flushed them out. I have made my point and that is the purpose of the Committee stage. We are properly scrutinising the middle way to determine whether it is a legitimate and credible way to take foxhunting forward. I have not been convinced by any of the arguments that I have heard.

I have faced the Countryside Alliance on a number of occasions.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

They are only men, that is true. In particular, I have seen the Countryside Alliance's performances at Bournemouth, and more recently on the streets of Brighton and Hove during the Labour party conference, which, frankly, were disgraceful. I have asked the Countryside Alliance why, if it is so concerned about the issue and thinks that it is one about which people are worried, it does not do the democratic thing and put up candidates. It could put up 600 candidates throughout the United Kingdom at the next general election. Let us have some Countryside Alliance candidates. I am sure that the Conservative party would welcome the good democratic debate that that would result in. Talking of which—

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously telling the House that, in a democracy, the only means of expressing an opinion is to stand for election? There are pressure groups and organisations of every type, fashion and fad, many of them on the left, but they do not all put forward candidates for election. The Countryside Alliance, like every other group, has every right to put its view in a democratic, fair and open way. It ill befits the hon. Gentleman to say that, because it has not proposed candidates for election, it is not a democratic organisation representing the views of many people in Britain.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I have heard some spinning, but that takes some beating. If the Countryside Alliance wants to take part in our democratic process, I am inviting it to put forward candidates for election. Of course there are other ways in a democracy to put forward views, whether they are those of pressure groups or of the Countryside Alliance, representatives of which I have seen at my surgery. I do not understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I simply advise the alliance that, if it wants to be involved in the democratic process, it should put forward candidates at elections.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The Countryside Alliance is involved in the democratic process. In many Conservative-controlled constituencies, it strongly supports the Conservative Members who defend hunting. That is to participate in democracy in Britain.

The Second Deputy Chairman:

Order. Before the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) responds to that intervention, I should like to bring him back to the clause.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

Perhaps, in response, I could be allowed to say that I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his response, which was illuminating.

Photo of John McFall John McFall Labour/Co-operative, Dumbarton

I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) regarding the Countryside Alliance. One of the issues that should be nailed is that the Countryside Alliance is representative of the whole community. Bob Worcester has undertaken a MORI poll, so we have a ready democratic ear which shows the voting intentions of the Countryside Alliance to be 79 per cent. Conservative, 7 per cent. Labour and 10 per cent. Liberal Democrat.

The Second Deputy Chairman:

Order. I have just said that I should be grateful if hon. Members would not go down that road.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about people's current intentions.

It has been alleged that the Bill presages a move to ban shooting and angling. I would not support such a move. I have been involved in animal welfare campaigns since I have been involved in politics, which is some time now, and I would not support a move to ban shooting or fishing, as some hon. Members and as some in the Countryside Alliance suggest might happen. That is a red herring to distract us from the fundamental nature of this important debate.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so generous as to give way a second time. He said that he is against any move to ban shooting, and at the beginning of his speech he referred to foxhunting as an ineffective means of controlling pests. If foxhunting is an ineffective and not sufficiently ruthless means of controlling a pest, and if he wants to exterminate the British fox population, what means of control does he advocate or recommend?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

I made it clear that I supported Lord Burns's conclusions on pest control. I refer the hon. Gentleman to page 89, the relevant quotation from which also appears in my previous speech on the issue at column 548 of Hansard on 7 July.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove

The hon. Gentleman can read it for himself.

I come now to why people should vote for the third option. I have said that there are only two options on which the Committee should vote—either to support hunting, in which case one votes for option 1, or to ban hunting, which means option 3. No other option is worthy of further consideration, and I hope that the House will reflect on that.

My decision is based on two points. First, during the election campaign, like my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester I made a clear commitment to my electors that, if the opportunity arose, I would vote to ban hunting. When my hon. Friend provided the opportunity I fulfilled that promise, but I was still prepared to say that I would continue to consider the issues, and that is why I made a contribution to the debate on the Burns report. I read the report at least twice and considered the issues, but I still came to the conclusion that the only option is to ban hunting. I came to that conclusion not just because of what I said before the election but, quite simply, because foxhunting, deer hunting and hare coursing are cruel.

I end by telling the House of something which occurred in Sussex over the past few days. Last Saturday, monitors attending the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray foxhounds found a fox on which a preliminary report was made before it was passed on to a local veterinary practice for analysis. The preliminary findings state that the post mortem findings support the conclusion that [the fox] was initially caught by the hind legs. The animal was probably then caught by other dogs that delivered massive bite injuries to the chest and abdomen. The report continues: The massive bruising and haemorrhage around the chest and abdominal wounds suggest that this damage occurred before death. That is that type of cruelty that I want to see ended in Britain. That is why tonight I shall be voting no, no, yes, for an end to cruelty.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

We must all recognise that hon. Members on both sides of the argument come to the debate with genuine and heartfelt convictions. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), I am not optimistic that I shall persuade anyone to change their views. However, I want to try to express, I suspect rather inadequately, some of the feelings that exist in the countryside and voices that should be heard here, and some, I suspect, rather inconvenient views, because this is not an entirely logical debate.

I start from this premise. My maternal grandfather and great grandfather were gamekeepers. My great grandfather was gamekeeper to one of my predecessors as Member of Parliament for Banbury. As a Scot, he might have been rather surprised that, although the legislation does not apply to Scotland, Scottish Members of Parliament from Aberdeenshire, whence he came, are entitled to vote on it—but that is another matter.

What I learned from my grandfather and saw as an Agriculture Minister and in my time as a Member of Parliament representing a partly rural constituency, is that, for gamekeepers, farmers and everyone involved in the countryside to succeed, they must be in complete harmony with the countryside. Hunting has been part of the tapestry of English rural life that has evolved over centuries. If one looks at the countryside of Oxfordshire, whether Roman roads or fields made up following the Enclosure Acts, one can see that the landscape partly comes about from the coverts, hedgerows and fences established as a result of hunting. Whether hon. Members like it or not, part of the tapestry of the countryside has come about because of field sports.

If hunting is banned, that tapestry will be lost. Part of the harmony of the countryside will be irretrievably lost, and it will alter. I hope that Government Members accept that if hunting is banned, we will not have a Milly-Molly-Mandy or anthropomorphic Beatrix Potter existence, and we will not have "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" of Roald Dahl. I suspect that, in constituencies such as mine, we shall see the emergence of men in vans late at night with spades, shovels and shotguns controlling foxes. At present, we have a perfectly responsible community of farmers and others who, through the hunts, control the fox population within agricultural and farming areas.

The other thing that has not been fully explained in our debate—although my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon tried—is the fact that this is not a division between town and country; people are not trying to set one against the other. However, hon. Members must try to understand that many people in the countryside genuinely feel that they are being misunderstood and their voice is not being heard. They feel beleaguered, not just in relation to hunting and field sports, but in many other ways, and believe that their way of life is threatened. They are otherwise law-abiding citizens who go about earning a living and making a full contribution to the community, and they cannot understand why what they perceive as urban values will be imposed on them.

I cannot think of an equivalent example in living memory in which the House has sought to impose urban or other values on a law-abiding community in that way.

I understand that some hon. Members come to the issue from an animal welfare viewpoint, and I have listened to their arguments. I also listened to arguments that were made when I was a member of the Standing Committee considering the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. However, hon. Members must understand that literally hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens in the countryside live in harmony with nature and are much closer to nature, day to day, than, with due respect, the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) or others. People in the countryside feel that an alien imposition is about to be forced on them by the House.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

I have lived in a village in the Atherstone hunt territory all my life, and there is not quite the divide that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting in the attitudes of urban and rural residents. I conducted a large-scale survey in my constituency, with a response rate approaching 50 per cent, which shows that there is a majority for the third option presented to us tonight, albeit much smaller than was the case at the time of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill in November 1997. Twenty-five per cent. have peeled away into the middle way. The gap between urban and rural attitudes is not all that substantial or significant.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

The hon. Gentleman must be entirely insensitive to the sort of countryside march that took place not so long ago during the time of that earlier Bill. I am quite sure that on 18 March we shall probably see nearly 1 million people marching through London to express their concerns.

6.15 pm

The point that I am trying to make is that we should not be insensitive to the views of many of our fellow citizens. There has been a tendency in today's debate and in previous debates to think that the measure can be introduced without deep concerns and a deep sense of hurt in a large part of the rural community, which feels that it is being misunderstood and that its voice is not being heard.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend said, correctly, that there is a deep sense of hurt in the countryside and a feeling that the values of people there are not understood. Is that not aggravated by the fact that the constituents to whom he referred see when we debate other issues, such as abortion, where serious ethical questions are raised, and homosexuality, especially relating to persons over 16 and under 18, that those issues are left to the individual to decide, and criminal law—propel in my view—is excluded from those areas?

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

May I pick up from my right hon. and learned Friend's intervention the point with which I shall conclude?

The Committee must accept that we are seeking to criminalise an activity that has been perfectly legal for centuries. When people are asked if they support field sports—I am referring to the intervention of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) —they may well say that they are not particularly keen on them.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

However, when one asks those people whether they think an activity that has been lawful for a long time should be made criminal, attracting criminal sanctions, one gets a completely different view.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

I am amazed at the audacity of the hon. Gentleman, who represents a Scottish constituency, in continuing to seek to intervene in an English debate. However, that is another matter.

I hope that those who are in favour of a total ban will recognise that hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens who, for centuries, have lawfully pursued an activity in harmony with the countryside, feel that we are simply not listening to their voice.

I very much hope that as the Bill makes progress between now and the general election—and probably beyond—all hon. Members will take the opportunity to listen to the countryside, so that the sense of hurt felt by people there does not become a real division in our country.

Photo of Mrs Eileen Gordon Mrs Eileen Gordon Labour, Romford

I shall restrict my remarks to clause 3. We are discussing three options tonight, and I am listening to the debate, but as far as I am concerned there is only one option: a total ban.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) said, we have discussed this issue many times in the House and have rehearsed the arguments over and over again. We could say, "Been there, done that and watched the video." Ever since I have known about hunting and understood the issues involved in it, I have detested it and thought it barbaric. The volume of letters that I receive from my constituents supporting my opinion confirms, rather than forms, that view.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the hon. Lady agree that this does not involve a split between rural and urban areas? In my constituency, as many people are for the measure as are against, whether they are in towns or the countryside. This is not about the countryside versus the towns, but about different opinions, wherever people live.

Photo of Mrs Eileen Gordon Mrs Eileen Gordon Labour, Romford

Absolutely. I shall go on to speak about that later.

We have had discussions about pest control and have heard what a wonderful example of country life hunting is. I want to concentrate for a few moments on a type of hunting that cannot even pretend to have an excuse: hare coursing. One cannot cry pest control, because the hare is already threatened. The hare population is about 20 per cent. of what it was 100 years ago. Changes in farming methods have led to a decline in the population. In some areas, hares are netted and transported specifically for coursing.

The Waterloo cup is the epitome of everything that I detest about hunting. Hares are beaten out of the long grass and then chased by two greyhounds. When a hare is caught, it is ripped to pieces. An RSPCA inspector who attended hare coursing under cover—he was fearful for his safety—and witnessed many kills described the end of the hare in the following terms: If both dogs catch the hare, one gets hold of head and the other grabs the back end and they will play tug 'o' war with it. The officials do run as fast as they can to get hold of the injured hare and kill it to prevent further suffering. But they can take up to 30 seconds, which might not sound a lot, but it is when you are being pulled to pieces. The Waterloo cup attracts up to 10,000 people over three days. It is a spectacle that people enjoy, but I think that it is obscene.

I do not know whether it is possible for people who enjoy the kill to take part in an alternative sport. In Romford, we have an alternative to hare coursing. Our greyhound stadium employs more than 300 people and has a turnover of more than £1 million a year. About 250,000 people visit the stadium each year. It is possible to provide pleasure without cruelty, and betting without blood. People who go greyhound racing enjoy themselves without having to kill the animals at the end of it. I do not know whether it is possible for those who enjoy the kill to take part in drag hunting, but I believe that there are many thousands of people who would in participate in such activity even though they would not dream of taking part in a hunt.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Is the hon. Lady saying to people who like game shooting that they should confine their activities to clay pigeon shooting? Is she telling those who like angling that they should confine their activities to fishing for corks? If she is not saying that, why does she distinguish between those sports and foxhunting?

Photo of Mrs Eileen Gordon Mrs Eileen Gordon Labour, Romford

The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be obsessed with shooting and fishing, but I cannot see those activities in the Bill. If he does not mind, I shall stick to the provisions about which I am talking.

Many people enjoy riding. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said that his daughter will now be unable to ride, as she cannot go hunting. I suggest to him that people who do not kill animals, perhaps because they detest the kill, can still ride and enjoy the countryside, as well as the challenge of the drag hunt. I wish that rural people who oppose hunting would sometimes view the introduction of a ban as an opportunity to increase sport and economic activity in the countryside. Perhaps that view is in the realms of fantasy, but, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) suggested, many people who live in the countryside would welcome a ban on hunting—

Photo of Mrs Eileen Gordon Mrs Eileen Gordon Labour, Romford

I should like to make progress; my speech is very short.

Many people in the countryside would like a ban and would welcome drag hunting as it would remove the unpredictability of the hunt. For instance, it would prevent the trampling of their farms, gardens and even school playgrounds—there are recorded examples of that. The writer of a letter published in The Daily Telegraph on 3 April 1998 stated: Most foxhunters I know regard Draghunting as similar to paying for sex—it lacks the uncertainty of the chase. That is basically what hunters enjoy: the frisson of the kill.

It is said that there is a time and place for everything. This is the time and place to ban hunting with dogs once and for all.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

Three years ago, a small number of Members of Parliament felt that neither a ban on hunting with dogs nor the status quo fairly balanced the values of animal welfare and civil liberties. Those hon. Members established the Middle Way Group. I know, because I was there, and was one of them, together with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and, at that time, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the Minister for Sport. Interestingly, in the three years since the Middle Way Group was set up, it has been described as a Trojan horse by both of the other lobbies represented in this debate. However, here we stand with a proposal that seems increasingly to resonate with the popular view of the public on hunting.

In December, Channel 4's "Powerhouse" programme conducted an independent NOP poll, which suggested that 48 per cent. of the public supported a ban and that 52 per cent. supported either regulation or supervision. That was a profound change, as it had previously appeared on regular occasions that the ban was supported by an overwhelming majority. The week after that poll was conducted, I participated in a debate with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) on "Channel 4 News", which subsequently conducted a telephone poll. The next day, it reported that 47 per cent. of people supported a ban and that 53 per cent. supported regulation or supervision. I am wary of telephone polls, but that poll suggested to me that there was some consistency. As 90,000 people phoned in, it was, at the very least, clear that the pro-ban organisations that were trying to marshal their support were unsuccessful in causing an enormous number of supporters to ring in.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Labour, West Ham

The "Powerhouse" poll asked whether members of the public would support strict measures of control, which sounds attractive. Unfortunately, however, the Middle Way Group's proposals contain no such measures. In many respects, the public were deceived and continue to be deceived by the middle way proposal. The hon. Gentleman said that the proposal is gaining resonance with the public, even though only a small number of Members of Parliament came together, but how many hon. Members now support the middle way, all these years later? He has given us numbers before, so what are the numbers now?

Mr. Öpik:

We are small, as I have said before, but we are perfectly formed. The loss of Alun Michael was a brief disaster for the organisation, but we replaced him. We have never had an enormous resource in terms of people—

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way, as he mentioned my name?

Mr. Öpik:

I said Alan Clark—the right hon. Gentleman is clearly having an identity crisis. [Interruption.] Okay I must have said the wrong thing. Such is the impression that the right hon. Gentleman has made on me in our proceedings. I intended to refer to the late Alan Clark, not to the un-late right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael).

The Middle Way Group has maintained the statutory number of members that is required to make it an all-party organisation. It has done so with small resources. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) asked a fair question in that respect. One of the most surprising things about the group's progress is that it has had very little money and a small team—of course, that team tends to turn up in the Chamber—but has gained increasing public support. Indeed, we heard just tic w about the evolving support in the constituency of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor.)

The hon. Member for West Ham made another interesting point about strict regulation. We can argue about whether the Middle Way Group's proposal provides sufficiently strict regulation, but is not such regulation different from a ban? If the hon. Gentleman is now saying that he is willing to discuss regulation, however strict, rather than a ban, the Middle Way Group is at least beginning to make substantial in-roads into a debate that has appeared previously to be a black and white issue. That is testimony to the fact that the debate has never needed to be as polarised and emotive as it has been until now.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Given that the Middle Way Group had two and a half years to cogitate on hare coursing, why did the manifesto that it circulated to all hon. Members contain no proposals on that activity? What practical differences would the regulatory regime proposed by the hon. Gentleman make to hare coursing? Will he deal with that point?

Mr. Öpik:

Yes. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will hear me explain the detail of the proposal. If he is not satisfied with those comments, I shall happily give way to him again. I point out now, however, that it was he who caused the Middle Way Group to revisit its position hare coursing. We did so for the simple reason that, as he rightly pointed out, we needed to maintain a consistent approach. Indeed, we have welcomed such feedback. Unlike Deadline 2000, which has sometimes failed in this respect, the Middle Way Group has genuinely tried to take on board suggestions, whether they have come from hon. Members, the public or elsewhere. That has been one of our strengths, and has added to the quality of our proposals.

6.30 pm

We are trying to offer a pragmatic solution. We have considered the history of animal welfare legislation and, in that spirit, we are trying to achieve a solution rather than a victory. Option 1 offers a form of self-regulation, which more or less happens now. The hon. Member for West Ham advised us that we should not vote for it. We shall consider his views, and inform him of our decision when we vote. If we do not vote for option 1, the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that, once again, we have listened to a Labour Back Bender. At least Liberal Democrat Back Benchers are listening to Labour Back Benchers, even if no one else is.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

My hon. Friend is not speaking for the Liberal Democrats today.

Mr. Öpik:

I am sorry. Let me stress that I am speaking on behalf of the Middle Way Group, not the Liberal Democrats. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) did that earlier.

On option 3, we understand the aspiration for animal welfare, which we respect. I respect the hon. Member for Worcester, who is not in his place, and the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) because they have a genuine interest in the subject. However, I believe that option 3 will not achieve the desired result. Literature that the League Against Cruel Sports sent out recently described option 3 as, a decisive opportunity to save animals' lives. Most assessments suggest that more foxes will be killed in a potentially crueller way if option 3 is accepted. I shall return to that subject later.

We set up our organisation out of anxiety about the proposals by the Countryside Alliance and Deadline 2000. Our proposals are based on four factors. First, all three key organisations accept that, in some circumstances, foxes need to be killed because they are pests. That is crucial. The question is not whether we kill foxes, but how we do it. In that context, we must compare killing a fox by using dogs with the alternative methods. Lord Burns emphasised that point in paragraph 48 of his report.

Secondly, we assume that Lord Burns was correct when he said that killing a fox with dogs was not necessarily more cruel than the alternatives if done according to specific criteria or codes of practice. That finding is at the core of our proposals.

Thirdly, we believe that civil liberties must be taken into account. The difference between the Middle Way Group and the other two organisations is that we attach more value to animal welfare than those who support the Countryside Alliance and more value to civil liberties than those who support Deadline 2000.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to consider civil liberties, let me point out that those of us who care passionately about the welfare of wildlife are worried about the alternatives that he describes. Labour Members, especially the hon. Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), seem to have missed the point that shooting, gassing, trapping or snaring are not only cruel but ruthlessly efficient. They would wipe out, for example, the brown hare population in my constituency and throughout Britain. Despite the views of the hon. Member for Romford, that also applies to foxes and the whole integrated wildlife population in the countryside.

Mr. Öpik:

As the hon. Gentleman says, passing option 3 will not save the life of a single fox. On balance, the fox population will decline for the reasons that he gave: other ruthless techniques will be used.

Fourthly, we must not legislate on the basis of the motives of those who hunt. We cannot create legislation based on what we believe is going on in other people's heads. I would not make criminals of people simply because I found their motives distasteful. We must focus on the impact of people's actions, not their thought processes. Totalitarian regimes attempt to legislate for what people think. I do not accuse Labour Members who support a ban of attempting to create a totalitarian regime, but their approach is dangerous in a liberal and democratic society.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not outlaw activities on the ground of motive. Does he also agree that we should not outlaw them because, subjectively, we find them distasteful? There are many activities that we would find distasteful or wrong, but we would not wish to outlaw them through the criminal law.

Mr. Öpik:

I voted to equalise the age of consent for that reason, and I believe that we need to show tolerance on other matters. If we legislated on motive, or on finding matters distasteful, as the right hon. and learned Member said, some people would want to ban fishing, shooting, falconry and angling as well as eating meat. All those activities involve pleasure for the human at the expense of the animal. We do not have to eat meat to live; we choose to do it. On other animal welfare matters, enjoyment is not a factor when considering a ban.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

Does my hon. Friend support legislation to protect domestic pets and farm animals from deliberate cruelty?

Mr. Öpik:

Yes. As my hon. Friend knows, I am keen to ensure that regulation in farming is effective. However, that is regulation. We have not yet banned eating meat in British society. We protect the welfare of the animal even though it is ultimately killed for human enjoyment. We have made that point many times.

The libertarian concept of respecting and honouring our responsibilities to the animal kingdom in a balanced way is at the core of the Middle Way Group proposals.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

How will the middle way proposals be policed during a hunt? When the fox is caught at the end of the hunt, how will the cruelty that currently occurs be prevented?

Mr. Öpik:

My hon. Friend pre-empts my next point; I was about to describe our proposals.

First, let me deal with the impartiality of the authority.

Our approach towards regulation is strict, clear and authoritative. The proposed regulation is probably stricter than any existing regulation to protect agricultural animals. Our approach is not only fair but transparent. The public can see that it is fair and that its welfare provisions are tough and yet respectful to civil liberties.

Under our proposals, the authority would comprise between seven and 11 members, appointed by the Secretary of State. They would cover various interest groups, including animal welfare representatives, hunters, farmers, landowners, conservationists and veterinary practitioners. At least half the members should have no vested interest in the issue. It may be difficult to find such individuals, but Lord Burns proved that that could be done. As long as they perform their tasks professionally, they will be effective. The chair would also be independent. The members would be appointed for not more than five years and would be in charge of our proposals. The authority would cost the taxpayer nothing, because all individuals and organisations that want to hunt would be charged a licence fee, which would cover the entire cost of our proposals.

The authority would have to submit an annual report to the Secretary of State and ultimately to Parliament. We would therefore be able to judge its effectiveness.

If they did not work, we would return with other proposals. If the Middle Way Group still existed, it would concede that the proposals needed to be changed. The hon. Members for West Ham, for Pendle and for Worcester would be able to say that stronger measures were required. We would respect that. We believe that the annual report will be sufficient to achieve our goal.

The licences are tough. They cover coursing, which I shall mention shortly. However, not only groups but any individual who wants to go hunting with a dog must get a hunting licence, which means a personal financial cost. Such individuals must be at least 16 years old, must not be subject to relevant disqualifications involving offences in terms of our propos and must be capable of securing compliance. Moreover, they must renew their licences each year. It might be possible to apply specific conditions to specific individuals. The authority will have power to change the licensing procedure if it is seen to be inadequate in maximising the animal welfare considerations that the authority is legally mandated to uphold.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

The hon. Gentleman is giving the Middle Way Group's proposals the first in-depth examination that they have been given so far today. Has he had an opportunity to read the amendments tabled by my colleagues and me, and has the Middle Way Group had an opportunity to discuss them in the context of the effectiveness—or, certainly, the principle—of allowing the Welsh Assembly its role in the regulation of hunting in Wales in the event of acceptance of option 2?

Mr. Öpik:

Let me respond briefly to my friend and neighbour. Personally, I have considerable sympathy with what he has said, but I cannot speak for the Middle Way Group. We have not adopted a position on the matter because we are primarily concerned with regulation. I suspect that our views are different, but we have not discussed the issue—although I shall be happy to discuss it with him later.

Our proposals contain an entire section relating to limitations on coursing, which was mentioned earlier. I am being as honest now as I tried to be in explaining to the hon. Member for Worcester, who is not here now, why we voted again; t Second Reading—as was the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). We have had problems with the coursing issue, and we are not sure about it. It was not included in our initial proposals—some early drafts leaked out—but we included it subsequently, because we felt that we should be consistent, and we feel that it should be discussed further in Committee.

Mr. Öpik:

I will in a minute—[Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) must wait until concessions have been made to him before talking over what is being said by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). I now call the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Middle Way Group has acknowledged that it is presenting a flawed option, which will have to be discussed in a forum other than this Committee of the whole House?

Mr. Öpik:

What kind of debate is taking place when a Member who has admitted that an issue in a schedule for which he or she is responsible could benefit from feedback across the Floor receives nothing but superficial criticism, and suggestions that the option is flawed? Whatever position may be taken in tonight's vote, I should like to think that the quality of debate in the Chamber could be higher than that.

Mr. Öpik:

I really do want to make progress.

Mr. Öpik:

In that spirit of helpfulness, I give way.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Will the hon. Gentleman remind Labour Members—and, indeed, Members from all parties—that the Government have tabled amendments to their own Bill? They clearly do not consider it to be perfect.

Mr. Öpik:

No one questions the suggestion that the Government's position is flawed. The challenge was directed at the Middle Way Group which has a perfect reputation in the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We want debate The hon. Gentleman can take that or leave it—but it is sad that, despite the close friendship that we have built up during the past few years, he should choose to disrespect me in such a public forum.

There are tough regulations governing hare coursing. They are there for all to see, and written in plain English. I give credit to the officials who have helped us all to ensure that that is the case. The regulations, however, can be made far tighter if that is required, without even changing the schedule involved.

Mr. Öpik:

I must make progress.

6.45 pm

Our schedule demands extensive third-party insurance cover for anyone who obtains a licence. In other words, if someone messes things up he pays the victim, whether trespass damage, injury or emotional distress is involved. We consider this to be a very important part of the Bill.

The authority will have the power to revoke or suspend a licence, and to add, vary, revoke or suspend terms or conditions. Those are wide-ranging powers which, if the authority acts responsibly and listens to advice, it will use to uphold the quality of regulation over the years.

The schedule also deals with inspection, and here I can answer some of the questions about how the system will be regulated. Part of the licence fee will be used to pay for a team of inspectors who will be able to drop in unannounced on licensed hunts anywhere in England or Wales, to check on how individuals are treating dogs or conducting the hunt, or to check on any other aspect of hunting procedures. We expect that to alleviate the enormous burden that would otherwise fall on the police, who would be required to be trained as experts in what they do not currently regard as their field. The schedule also covers the inspection of premises and events and anything else related to hunting with dogs.

There is also a provision on training and examinations. We have not made it mandatory, but we propose that the authority should be able to provide instruction and examination in connection with the obtaining of a licence—although the applicant would have to pay for it. I think that the provision should be implemented, although that too will be a matter for debate. In any event, no other proposed provision on hunting has suggested such a comprehensive requirement for personal qualification.

The provision relating to codes of practice is perhaps the toughest of all. Practices that would be covered by the code include autumn or cub hunting…digging out or bolting wild mammals which have gone to ground…stopping up earths and refuges…providing artificial earths and refuges…interfering with the flight of a wild mammal during a hunt, and…hunting a hind which is with its calf. Specific provision is also made in regard to permission from landowners for digging out, and the use of terriers underground.

We would expect some of those activities to be banned by the authority for animal welfare reasons. I remind the Committee that the authority's crucial role is maintaining animal welfare. We will not proscribe them here, however, because we think that if the authority has the right membership it will do its job effectively.

Mr. Öpik:

I want to finish my speech now.

Our provision on offences covers prohibited hunting, unlicensed regulated hunting, hare coursing and the giving of false information. The penalties are severe: in some instances, a fine of £5,000 may be imposed—level 5 on the standard scale. There is also provision on search and seizure. The police can become involved here if they are required to, perhaps on the request of an inspector. A constable may stop and search a vehicle, animal or other thing associated with hunting. I am not sure how one searches an animal or other thing, but the provision is there.

The provision on disqualification is equally strict. Page 15 contains the strongest disqualification of all: an order can specify the duration of a prohibition, which could last for the length of someone's life. We consider ours to be a powerful and robust set of proposals, although that is for other Members to judge.

I want to end by responding to some of the key objections that we have heard. One is, "You cannot compromise on cruelty". Option 3, however, allows rats to be hunted with dogs, which is clearly a compromise. It is not possible to be absolutist: there must be a balance, even in option 3.

Some say that our proposals are unworkable, but we regulate activities ranging from fishing to the use of laboratory and food animals, and from that to the treatment of household pets. People do breach the code, but by and large it works. Others say that our proposals would not get rid of the cruelty. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the alternatives are not cruel? Something that kills us will certainly compromise our welfare. As Deadline 2000 has said, shooting with a rifle is the best way, if it is done correctly, but often a shotgun will be used and may merely wound the fox. The death would be a much more painful death than under the Middle Way Group proposals.

What is barbaric? Again, that is a judgment call. It goes back to the cruelty debate. Fishing could be regarded as barbaric. I have never understood why reptiles are excluded when mammals are included in the ban. Why not protect cold-blooded organisms as well, not least because some in the Chamber would probably benefit?

The accusation is often made that we are funded by the Countryside Alliance and that we are a stooge for the other group. Yesterday, in The Guardian, there was an advert which we found out would cost £16,275 under normal prices. That one advert, which criticised the Middle Way Group, cost more than twice the group's entire budget in the past three years. We have achieved resonance with the public not by buying it, but by talking to people and trying to win the arguments, as we have here.

I have tried to put forward the case as the Middle Way Group sees it. Just because it does not go as far as a ban does not mean that all its supporters are pro-hunting. That point seems to have been lost in the debate. The real aim should be to improve animal welfare, not ban hunting and substitute it with methods which in some cases are worse.

None of the options is perfect. We may have some way to go on hare coursing, for example, but we believe that the Middle Way Group option is the most workable. It keeps landowners onside and does not criminalise individuals who sincerely believe that they are doing nothing wrong.

The debate on Second Reading caused us to vote no, for reasons that we described earlier. We are concerned that some people still feel that it is all or nothing. Today's debate is a chance for us to think about our responsibilities to animals and to people. Whether we do well will be a test of the quality of the House and its ability to listen.

I used to support a ban, but I have found a better way, even though the League Against Cruel Sports has told me many times that it is not a vote winner in my constituency. Perhaps others can, too. Doing the right thing is not always the easy option, but in the name of common sense and liberty I ask hon. Members to choose the right route, not the easy one. In our judgment, the best way to resolve the matter is through the middle way.