With this it will be convenient to discuss motion No. 3—hunting with dogs: supervision—and motion No. 4—hunting with dogs: hunting under licence. [Interruption.]
I heard some advice to quit while I am ahead, but I am a greater optimist than that.
Today's debate fulfils our manifesto commitment that the House would be given an early opportunity to vote on the future of hunting with dogs. It also fulfils the announcement made in the Queen's Speech after the election. It is an important step towards fulfilling the second part of our manifesto promise, which was to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue.
The issue of hunting is firmly on the House's agenda. It is extremely contentious and it needs to be resolved. There is no right time to try to resolve it, but it is an important issue for many who want to see an end to cruelty and for those who want things to remain as they are.
There have been numerous legislative attempts to deal with hunting through private Members' Bills, but last year the Government introduced a Hunting Bill. It was an honest attempt to enable each of three groups to set out their preferred option, with the Government remaining neutral. It was the subject of a free vote on both sides of the House.
It was hoped that that process would lead to opinion across the piece coming together behind one option, but that did not happen. Rather than coming together, views had polarised between the Houses by the time the Bill was considered in the Lords.
I remind the House of the Burns report on hunting, which the Government commissioned in 2000. The report set out the facts about hunting and the consequences of a ban. Hon. Members who have been involved in the hunting debate, whatever their views on hunting, have been united in their admiration of the fairness of the report produced by Lord Burns, and I am sure that it will again inform debate today.
As promised, we now return to the hunting debate. A vote on the alternative motions provides a straightforward method of taking the views of both Houses in a clear and unambiguous manner, without taking too much time out of the busy programme faced by both Houses. Again, it is as simple as that.
The options contained in the Hunting Bill of 2000 form the basis of the options in the motions that we are considering today. They are, first, supervision, which is nearest to the status quo; secondly, hunting under licence, or regulation, known as the middle way; and a third option, which has been described as a ban or prohibition of hunting.
I have held discussions with all the interest groups, all of which have considered refinements to the detail of their option as originally drafted, in the period since the Bill was introduced in the House. Things have moved on—in particular, the Deadline 2000 option was amended during its consideration by the Standing Committee and on Report. Referring to the three options as set out when the last Bill was introduced is the simplest way of defining the choices on which right hon. and hon. Members are being asked to vote. All interest groups are represented in the House, and anyone speaking in the debate can explain the nuances of the latest thinking on their preferred option.
I remind the House that the Government have remained neutral on the question. No Whip has been imposed on Labour Members for the votes that will be called at the end of today's debate. I understand that that is also the position taken by the official Opposition and other parties. It has essentially been a parliamentary issue rather than a governmental issue, and we respect that fact.
The way in which I have voted on hunting is on the record. I have always voted for a ban on hunting, but that does not interfere with my responsibility for managing the process and encouraging debate from all sides. I promise that all points made in the debate in both Houses will be listened to and considered. Once the votes have been held in this House, and in the other place tomorrow, I intend to make a statement on the way forward before the Easter recess.
No. I have seen suggestions that it is likely to be towards the end of this week, but that is a matter for the business managers and they have not confirmed the time to me. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that there is a fairly narrow window of opportunity between now and next Monday, let us say, and it will be within that time frame.
I am grateful to the Minister for the balanced and sensible nature of his introduction so far and look forward to the balanced and sensible nature of the statement that will be made later this week. However, given that he has committed himself to an outright ban on fox hunting, does he agree that it is impossible for him to be dispassionate in his consideration of what is said?
Were that the case, it would be most disappointing because it would have to apply to everyone taking part in the debate. It would mean that nobody who had voted one way in the past could possibly be open to serious points made by people with other views. That is not the position as far as I am concerned. Tonight's vote will allow Members on both sides to indicate the strength of view on each of the three broad options. My responsibility, in addition to being able to exercise my vote freely, like everyone else, is to enable the House to reach a conclusion on the issue. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do that as logically and dispassionately as I can.
I respect the integrity of what the Minister says, but he also brings another aspect to the debate. He is a Minister in the Department responsible for rural affairs, which represents a change from the way in which the matter has been handled in previous Sessions. Can we take it that he will assess the impact on rural communities and the rural economy of any decision or compromise that is reached and that he will be briefed by his Department following analysis of those matters?
The right hon. Gentleman can certainly take it that I will consider all aspects of this matter before carrying out the responsibilities that are mine at present.
In the past, this matter has been left to Back Benchers, through the drafting of private Members' Bills, and three groups were allowed to draft on the last occasion. The Government took office with a manifesto commitment made at the last election to enable Parliament to come to a conclusion on the issue. That is the responsibility that I have as a Minister, which is what has changed. The matter is not being left to Back-Bench initiatives; I have a job to help the House and Parliament as a whole to reach a conclusion on the issue.
My right hon. Friend will remember the private Member's Bill that I was responsible for in 1994, which received the massive endorsement of the House—yet, like other such Bills, it was defeated. The will of this House to ban hunting has been shown time and again. Therefore, if there is any jiggery-pokery at a future date, will the Minister consider invoking the Parliament Act?
I take it that my hon. Friend is suggesting that there might be obstruction in another place. I hope that in their debate tomorrow, Members of the House of Lords will make a constructive contribution and that we will be able to move forward. My hon. Friend knows that I am an optimist. I encourage Members speaking and voting in another place to approach the matter in the same constructive way that I expect of Members of this House.
I am pleased to hear that more of a Government line is being taken and that the issue will be resolved one way or another. The Government have been reluctant to use the Parliament Act. Will the Minister consider using a Joint Committee of both Houses to come up with a Bill that Parliament as a whole can agree so that this issue is settled by the will of Parliament?
I hear what the hon Gentleman says. He is effectively starting to make a contribution to the debate. He can, I am sure, make his point if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have undertaken to consider all the points made in the debate.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. McFall, is not it obvious that there is no way in which the other place will agree to a total ban, no matter what majority there is tonight for that option, as we expect? The question of whether the Government will have the courage to use the Parliament Act is crucial. I hope that there will be an overwhelming vote for a total ban, but, no matter how we vote tonight, it will be a waste of time unless the Government understand the need to act decisively.
I certainly do not rule out that approach. I hope that my hon. Friend's comments will be borne in mind when Members of the other place debate and vote on the issue. I have already said that I intend to carry on being an optimist, and to encourage intelligent debate from all sides of the argument.
Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will listen carefully to the debate in this House, and that if there is a vote for a ban he will make clear in his statement in a few days' time the Government's position on the use of the Parliament Act to bring this matter to a conclusion, as the Government have promised they will do for some time?
I understand precisely my hon. Friend's point, and the importance placed on it by the many Members who signed amendment (b) to the motion for a ban, although it is not being considered. I shall take that point on board, and I shall respond to it when I make a statement in the next few days.
That point can be made in a variety of ways, gently or bluntly. My hon. Friend does it in his own inimitable manner.
My right hon. Friend has been most generous in giving way. He will have noticed that Members from all parts in the other place, when discussing its future reform, repeatedly said that even in a reformed state it should be subservient to this House. That should also have an important influence on how we judge the decisions made here against those made there.
My hon. Friend makes an important constitutional point. I want to encourage rather than threaten Members of the other place, as I encourage Members of this House, to approach this debate constructively and positively. I know that there is a temptation to say that we have debated this issue before, so why are we debating it again? We are debating the three motions, and they will be debated tomorrow in the other place. On the back of those two debates and the votes cast, I shall make a statement to the House. It would not be fair to go beyond that. I am hoping for a constructive debate, with more light than heat in both Houses.
As my right hon. Friend will know, a decision on this subject has already been made in Scotland. What advice would he give to Members representing Scottish constituencies on using their vote tonight?
On a free vote, all Members can decide how to cast their votes. It is for hon. Members to decide how to vote.
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman answers that question, may I say that he has been very generous in taking interventions, but they do not directly relate to the subject matter before the House? An enormous number of Members want to catch my eye, and unless we get going, more and more of them will be disappointed.
I can tell my hon. Friend Judy Mallaber that I have received no such indications. I have seen in the press many reports of deals being done and negotiations going on, but that speculation is inspired by nothing. I have listened to a variety of views. That is a sensible approach for any Minister with responsibility for an issue to take. I shall now listen to the debates in this House and in the other place.
The purpose of the motions is to give all right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to consider the matter and to vote. Hunting is an emotive issue. It remains to be seen what debate we will have here and in another place, but in the past both Houses have risen to the occasion when there has been a debate on a free vote. I shall listen with interest to what is said in the hope that it will illuminate the way forward. I have always been an optimist, and I hope that contributions will generate light, not just heat, and inform the debate.
Earlier this afternoon I was rather too keen to get on with the debate in order to share my own experience with the House. I have never spoken in a debate on hunting before, and I thought it important to set out my stall.
It was when I was a 17-year-old at grammar school, which will be another red rag to the bulls opposite, that I was first invited to become joint master of the South Staffordshire hunt, and I served for five seasons as field master. During that time I learned many of the skills that are needed for politics, not least the ability to lead from the front and to develop a thick skin to withstand the slings and arrows that are sometimes aimed at us. At the time, I was the youngest master of foxhounds in the country, but I am not sure whether that record still stands. I continued to hunt with my family, on and off, until the early 1980s, and now occasionally go out with the Forest and District beagles in Cheshire. I especially enjoy being up in the hills, where life is pretty hard but the people are the most genuine.
In all that time I have never considered hunting cruel—if I had, I would not have taken part. It always seemed to me to be the greatest privilege of all to be able to follow hounds and to watch them work in the company of others who respected and loved the traditions of the countryside as much as I did. When I was a joint master I worked to a voluntary code drawn up by the Masters of Foxhounds Association; I therefore know from personal experience that the system of self-regulation works. That arrangement has more recently been superseded by the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting, which operates at no cost to the taxpayer but ensures that all recognised hunting with dogs is accountable. I support that organisation wholeheartedly and believe that the best way forward is to back it and self-regulation.
The breathtaking arrogance and insensitivity of this Government have to be seen to be believed. At a time when the countryside is still reeling from the shock of a devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and on top of the deepest farming recession since the 1930s, the Government seek to kick the countryside in the teeth once again by introducing this debate on hunting. In the current climate of rural crisis, it is an unacceptable distraction from the real issues that face the countryside, let alone the nation.
Given how well the hon. Lady knows the countryside people she has mixed with through hunting, will she denounce those in the hunting lobby who have said that if the House passes a law outlawing their activity, they will break the law?
The hon. Gentleman refers to the people whom I have met through hunting. In fact, I come from a farming background and have lived in the countryside all my life, so not all the people I know hunt, although most of them support field and country sports. Like him, I do not believe that any group should break the law of this land. I believe in the rule of law.
To most rational people, it seems extraordinary that the Government have dropped what we were told were important pieces of legislation owing to a shortage of parliamentary time, yet—surprise, surprise—have miraculously found time to buy off the hounds on the Labour Back Benches who are giving glorious tongue to their dissatisfaction with their party and its obvious failures. The deal to save the skin of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—for the time being—has not gone unnoticed by the people of this country, especially by those whose lives will be adversely affected by a possible ban and those who may lose both their livelihood and their homes.
While the nation's priorities on the domestic agenda, such as health, rising crime, transport and education, are being sidelined, this matter is being driven by single-issue Back Benchers and campaigning groups who do not have the best interests of the countryside at heart, know little of its ways and care even less about its people. If they succeed in banning hunting, they will be personally responsible for a worsening of animal welfare.
As someone who was brought up in a village at the base of the Pennines and who knows how hard it is to be a hill farmer, may I ask the hon. Lady to accept from me how little foxhunting has to do with many in the rural community? What does she have to say about the priorities for the people among whom I was brought up—education, housing and rural transport? They are far more important to communities in the countryside than foxhunting.
The hon. Lady has just shot her own fox. It is the Government's choice to debate this matter at this time instead of the issues in which she says her constituents are most interested.
May I take my hon. Friend back to the point that she was making about the welfare of the fox? Is she aware that four senior executives of the League Against Cruel Sports have withdrawn their call for a ban on hunting precisely because it has been shown that such a ban would have adverse consequences for the welfare of the fox?
My hon. Friend makes a true and worthwhile point.
Farmers have a statutory obligation to control pests such as foxes. That control should include both dispersal and culling, but never the extermination of an indigenous species. Following the voluntary suspension of hunting owing to foot and mouth last spring—this will answer the question put by Mrs. Fitzsimons—including suspension of the lambing call service, farmers started to report to hunts that acute fox predation was occurring, resulting in severe lamb losses.
In January, the Farmers Union of Wales reported that:
"The ban on foxhunting over the last year has led to an explosion in the fox population to unprecedented levels. In some cases, farmers who lost six or seven lambs to foxes normally have seen the numbers jump to between 35 and 40"—
[Interruption.] Labour Back Benchers who are shouting "Rubbish" should tell that to Welsh farmers.
The need to control the fox population cannot be challenged, but the debate, more often than not, focuses on cruelty or perceived cruelty. I commend the former Home Secretary for setting up an independent committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales, commonly known as the Burns committee after its distinguished chairman. I only wish that the Government had been as forthcoming in seeking after the truth about the cause and handling of the foot and mouth epidemic—but we all know why they were not.
At no point did Lord Burns conclude that hunting was cruel. While making the obvious point that hunting
"seriously compromises the welfare of the fox", the report noted that
"insensibility and death will normally follow within a matter of seconds once the fox is caught".
One of the most senior vets in the UK, Lord Soulsby, went on record to condemn the organisations which claimed that the former phrase equated to cruelty and hence justified an end to hunting. He said:
"At no point did the committee conclude, or even attempt to conclude, an assessment of cruelty. Yet many bodies have erroneously—I repeat the word 'erroneously'—quoted the Burns report, stating that it clearly demonstrated that the practice of hunting wild animals with dogs caused cruelty. The report did not state that."
In fact I did not go hare coursing in my pony club days, but I did go hare coursing once with a local veterinary surgeon. Funnily enough, it is the only field and country sport in which people do not seek to kill the quarry, and I do not personally believe it to be cruel, but the hon. Gentleman obviously does.
In addition, Burns concluded that none of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. There are welfare implications for all legal methods of managing the fox population and, on welfare grounds, no clear case has been made to separate hunting from other forms of control as a method that should be banned.
The question that has to be answered by those who seek to ban hunting is: what alternative method would cause less suffering, would be more natural—after all, foxes themselves live by hunting—and would provide such benefits to conservation and biodiversity? Farmers sympathetic to hunting have enhanced the British landscape by ensuring that hedgerows, thickets and woodland are well managed, providing an appropriate habitat for a variety of species. Research has shown that areas managed for hunting are significantly more biologically diverse than unmanaged areas.
People are important too, however, and what a terrible impact a total ban on hunting would have on the rural economy, which is still reeling from the after-effects of foot and mouth disease. With average net farm income having fallen to £5,200 per farm in England and £4,100 in Wales, it seems an act of spiteful vandalism to destroy literally thousands of jobs in deeply rural areas, when it is simply not necessary to do so and where no meaningful alternative employment exists.
The Burns report clearly said that the abolition of hunting would have an impact in some parts of the country, and my constituency, with its six hunts, would be just such an area. In July 2000, The Mid Devon Gazette showed from a four-week survey in my constituency that 69.32 per cent. of the population wanted to retain hunting. That shows how important hunting is not just to huntsmen, but to the wider community.
My hon. Friend is right. Hunting and other field and country sports are very important to the rural economy, and a ban would have truly devastating knock-on effects on rural businesses, such as feed merchants, blacksmiths, veterinary practices, the horse industry, and village pubs and hotels, among others. Even a former Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—Joyce Quin—has acknowledged that hunt kennels provide a valued service to the farming industry by removing casualty and fallen stock, the considerable cost of which would have to be borne by farmers themselves if hunting were banned, thereby adding to their current financial difficulties.
Hunts are not only at the heart of economic activity in the countryside, but play a vital role in organising a whole range of social activities that provide a lifeline in the more remote areas, which are so badly served compared to their urban and suburban counterparts; and everyone is welcome to participate, irrespective of age, income or social background. [Interruption.] Sadly, when I say such things, Labour Members merely scoff. No doubt they live very comfortable lives; they do not know how hard it is in the upland areas of the United Kingdom to farm and get a living from the land, or how remote and cut off people often are.
I do not intend to give way for the very simple reason that many other hon. Members wish to speak, and I believe that we should hear their voices.
Before Members vote on the three options before them today, perhaps they should also consider the efforts to legislate on this difficult and sensitive issue north of the border. The Scottish Parliament set a damaging constitutional precedent by ignoring the findings of its own Rural Development Committee, which spent 15 months taking evidence before concluding that it would be
"difficult or impossible to amend the Bill into a form which will adequately meet the aim of ending cruelty and for this reason recommends that the general principles of this Bill should not be agreed to".
Yet bigoted Members of the Scottish Parliament, who played no part whatever in the scrutiny of the legislation, voted for a ban without even arguing the case, let alone mentioning animal welfare. If Mr. Prentice thinks that an honourable course of action, he and I must differ.
I am sorry, but I said that I would not give way.
The Bill was promoted in Scotland as a modernising measure to take us into the 21st century, without offering 21st century solutions for species management. As a result, the Bill is the equivalent of a dog's breakfast, and police in the borders have said that it is
"almost unworkable . . . because the legislation is not clear".
Serious concerns were also expressed about the lack of police resources—a valid point that is reflected throughout England and Wales, too.
We have the precedent before us of an in-depth independent inquiry set up by the present Government, and we should, if we use common sense, avoid the trap that Holyrood fell into, which generated headlines such as "Daft as a Brush" in the Sunday Mail, "NHS not foxes is top priority" in The Sun, "A vote for flawed and ambiguous legislation" in The Scotsman, "This law is an ass" in the Daily Mail, "Executive must intervene with compensation" in The Herald, and The Independent said:
"The mark of a civilised society is its tolerance of unpopular behaviour".
Surely this issue is about civil liberty and personal freedom. It is quite wrong in principle to make criminal an activity just because a certain percentage of the population, often guided by misleading information, disapproves of it. Labour Members may say that a majority of people think that way, but they should read the most recent polls, which show that opinion has changed.
In the light of the Scottish Bill, which will most certainly be subject to at least two legal challenges when it has gained Royal Assent, it would surely be foolhardy to follow in those flawed footsteps. However, I recognise with a certain amount of sadness that tonight's votes will reflect not the arguments for hunting put before the House in the debate, but perhaps the prejudices of the past and the imagined prejudices of the present.
The opportunity to destroy yet another institution of our great nation will be irresistible to some people, including Mr. Banks, who was heard to boast on Jimmy Young's show the other day that they have the numbers in this Parliament to do just that. He and his ilk loathe anything to do with tradition and seek to destroy it at every opportunity, but perhaps he and others should recall that this Parliament cannot constitutionally bind its successor and a future Parliament can undo anything it wishes to. I urge the House to reject the ban and to vote unequivocally for the status quo: self-regulation.
I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has put a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches during the debate and that that limit starts now.
The House has a shameful record on social reform which stretches over centuries. It always lags behind public opinion and has done so on divorce, capital punishment, ending the criminalisation of homosexual acts, and animal welfare. The same arguments have been expressed throughout—the very same arguments that we heard from Mrs. Winterton.
Let me remind the House of a similar argument. Talking about a countryside pursuit, a right hon. Member of this House said that it
"had existed for more than 1000 years without . . . having been supposed to be pregnant with any of those crying evils that are now" associated with it. He went on to say that there was
"a busy and anxious disposition to legislate on matters in which the laws are already sufficient to prevent abuse. The House should intervene only when an Act was generally and gravely called for, not to glorify petty, personal and local motives which were infinitely below the dignity of Parliament."
That is almost identical to the hon. Lady's statements, but those remarks were made on
Ever since I was elected to the House of Commons 32 years ago, I have been voting and instituting measures to ban hunting with dogs. I am perfectly ready to spend the second half of my parliamentary career doing so, but I would prefer to spend my time on other matters.
If the hon. Gentleman allows me to pursue my argument a little further, I will give way if I have time.
The House will vote tonight, and the Minister confirmed that he will make a statement in the next few days. If the House votes for a complete ban, as I very much trust it will, I cannot understand what it is that the Minister will have to tell us. If he believes that our House voting for a ban will persuade the other House to vote for a ban, then he is indeed an optimist, but to quote "South Pacific", he is a cockeyed optimist, because that will not happen. I cannot understand what my right hon. Friend will say other than that a Bill implementing a full ban will be introduced by the Government in this Session preferably, or in the next Session at the latest, and that if the Bill is passed by this House, the Government will put it through under the Parliament Act if it is blocked in the House of Lords.
If my right hon. Friend turns out to have something else to say other than that the Government will introduce a Bill instituting a full ban, one must assume that it is what the press is going to call a compromise, and that is utterly unacceptable. In addition, that would introduce a new constitutional doctrine. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister invited me to be a member of the royal commission on the reform of the House of Lords, he gave me terms of reference that began:
"Having regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent Chamber of Parliament".
That is the policy of the Prime Minister and the Government, but it is not pre-eminent unless the House of Commons gets its way in a conflict with the House of Lords. Any compromise will mean not that the House of Commons is getting its way, but that the House of Lords is getting its way, and that will mean that the Government are abandoning their position on the pre-eminence of this House.
The doctrine does not say that the Government get their way; it says that the House of Commons gets its way. What is more, for the House of Commons to get its way, whether with Government legislation, which this measure would be, or with private Member's legislation, it does not need as big a majority as it is possible that we will get tonight. When I was Minister of State at the Department of Industry, we used the Parliament Act to get through the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill when we had a majority of one in this Chamber. If we can do it on a majority of one, we can do it on the kind of majority that we will have tonight.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 was taken through the House, I asked why Opposition Members had voted in support of a Government move of which many Opposition Members and I strongly disapproved? Sir Keith Joseph told me that it conformed with the proprieties and rules of the House. In what way does it conform with the proprieties and rules of the House that a Bill that forms no part of the Government's manifesto is taken through under the Parliament Act?
The hon. Gentleman knows little if anything about the history of the House of Commons if he promotes that point of view. The Parliament Acts were introduced first by the pre-war Liberal Government and then amended by the Attlee Government so that the House of Commons could get its way in a conflict with the House of Lords. That is what the Parliament Acts are about, and I am simply asking my right hon. Friends to endorse and reinforce my terms of reference as a member of a royal commission.
If my right hon. Friends adopt a new doctrine that when there is a difference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, there has to be a compromise that gives way in some degree to the House of Lords, I will assume that that will apply not merely to legislation on hunting with dogs, but to everything else. I give notice to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip that if this House of Commons votes for a total ban and then gives way to the view of the House of Lords, she need not expect to see me in the Division Lobbies in the future when this House is asked to vote down Lords amendments to Government legislation. I very much hope that we shall not come to that. The whole point about being as sickeningly loyal as I am is that when one does rebel, one does it with a vengeance, and if necessary that is what I shall do.
I deliver that message to the Chief Whip and say to Ministers that there is only one way to resolve the problem—to enact what the House of Commons votes for tonight. Let no one believe that if that does not happen, we will stop. We will go on until we get the complete ban. It will have to be done some time, so do it now.
It falls to me to kick off the debate on behalf of my party because I am responsible for animal issues. I should make it clear that it has long been a tradition of the Liberal Democrats to have a free vote on the subject and I confidently expect my colleagues to split three ways in the Division Lobbies at 10 o'clock. [Interruption.] Members of other parties make a noise about that, but I think that there is a free vote on both sides of the House. It is worth pointing out that we have heard only from Labour Members in favour of a ban and from Conservatives in favour of the status quo. I look forward to hearing from Miss Widdecombe and Kate Hoey who will help to balance the debate.
We have explained many times that it has long been a tradition for our party conference to vote for a ban on hunting. It has equally been the case, however, that the parliamentary party has consistently decided that this is a matter of conscience and people can vote accordingly. There is nothing wrong with that, and it would be healthier if we saw greater diversity in the other parties.
I have a sense of déjà vu because this is far from the first debate on hunting in which I have participated, and the same is true of many Members. My constituents say to me, "Another debate on hunting? Why are you not discussing the NHS, Government sleaze or Iraq?", and I have some sympathy with that view.
No, not at the moment.
I have sympathy with that view not because this issue is not important—it is—but because we are going round and round in circles. We have discussed foxhunting many more times than any other issue. We have had at least three votes on this substantive issue since 1997, and today we will have the fourth. On each occasion there has been a clear majority in favour of an outright ban. Two Committees have undertaken long proceedings—25 sittings in all. Since 1997, Parliament has spent 125 hours and 47 minutes discussing hunting, and the clock has been started again today.
As I said, in each vote there has been a substantial majority in favour of a ban. On
I wonder how we have managed to proceed through an entire Parliament and into the next one without seemingly making very much progress. Frankly, an abdication of responsibility and leadership by the Government has led us to the situation today. There has been a failure to respond to the general public and the views of the House. The Labour party promised a vote on hunting in its 1997 manifesto. It stuck to the letter of that promise, but although everybody thought that the vote on hunting would be followed by legislation, there was nothing of the sort; it was an indicative vote. What was the point of it? It got us nowhere.
There followed a period in which the Countryside Alliance was making its views very plain and Ministers took fright. The previous Home Secretary set up the Burns inquiry and hoped that the issue would go away or somehow be resolved, even though there are irreconcilable views in the House. Most cynically of all, as I pointed out in my last speech on the matter, in January 2001, when the election was approaching and it was obvious that traditional supporters of the Labour party in particular were unhappy with the Government's inaction on the issue, a Bill was introduced which stood no chance whatever of becoming law.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the nature of the Welsh countryside and Welsh agriculture means that legislation on hunting would be best undertaken by the Welsh Assembly, although given the circumstances we would like to work towards agreement in this House?
I agree. I remember the Minister picking me up on that point in the previous debate on the subject and disagreeing with that in principle. However, although I personally strongly hold the view that hunting should be banned, I think that it is for the Welsh Assembly to sort out the situation in Wales. It is wrong for us to legislate on this issue in Wales. The position would be stronger if this were a devolved matter, and the Welsh Assembly could reach its own conclusions.
We have come full circle. Today we will have an indicative vote—exactly the same sort of vote as we had in December 2000. We are no further forward. I listened to the Minister carefully, and he made no guarantee that the Government will do anything after the vote. They will make a statement, but we do not know what it will say, and nobody has been able to tease that out of the Minister.
I make one plea to the Government: for goodness sake, put this issue to bed. It has been going on long enough. I suggest that, constitutionally, the Government ought to adopt the views of the Commons. Mr. Kaufman expressed the view that that is the proper position. We will have had four votes in two Parliaments delivering a large majority in favour of a ban. The Government cannot go on having these votes year in, year out, only to leave them hanging in the air. They may want to sit on the fence and they may hope that something will turn up to save them, but it will not. In the end, they will have to get a grip and do something.
I ask the Minister to make it clear what the Government will do if the House again votes for an outright ban and the House of Lords votes for retention. Will the Government invoke the Parliament Acts and bring the Bill back? We have not had a clear answer to that question. What if the Lords votes for the so-called middle way? Does that make a difference? I do not think that it does. Will the Minister agree that the issue needs to be settled once and for all, and that this should be the last substantive debate on hunting in this House?
I turn briefly to one or two personal remarks to set out my position. I have listened carefully, as I am sure have hon. Members throughout the House, to my constituents on this issue, and there was a diversity of views, as one might expect. The majority is clearly in favour of a ban. The letters in my postbag are about 10:1 in favour of a ban, and they come from people in urban and rural areas. I do not believe that this should be portrayed as an urban versus rural issue; that is a red herring. There are people in towns who want hunting to continue, and there are people in rural areas—a majority, I believe—who want hunting to be banned.
A ban is appropriate. As I said, these are my personal views; I am not speaking on behalf of my party. I do not accept that the method of foxhunting, which involves cruelty and stress to the animal, can be justified by the pleasure that it gives to those who hunt or by the ancillary benefits which I accept flow from hunting.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come on to farming issues in a moment.
If hunting is essentially cruel, as I believe it is, the question is whether there are any other factors in the calculation that outweigh that so that hunting can be allowed to continue. I make that calculation carefully because no Liberal wants automatically to jump towards a ban. Indeed, we are often accused of wanting to legalise things rather than to ban them. Is the damage done by not banning something greater than the loss of freedom caused by such a ban? In this case, the answer to that question is yes.
No, I want to conclude my remarks before long.
For me, the freedom to hunt is the freedom to inflict unacceptable stress and pain on an animal, and the human freedom to hunt cannot outweigh that consideration. There is nothing new in that argument. We had bear baiting and cock fighting, and we still have hare coursing.
It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. Is he aware of what veterinary surgeons say? More than 300 have written to Members of Parliament to support hunting. They do not agree that stress is placed on the animal. They say that the process is perfectly natural and that death is very quick. Their arguments run counter to the hon. Gentleman's.
I accept that there are experts on both sides of the argument who will produce conflicting evidence. That is inevitable. However, the Burns inquiry, to which the hon. Lady referred in her speech, concluded that hunting seriously compromises the welfare of the fox. I am convinced that it is cruel.
In outlawing bear baiting, cock fighting and other such so-called sports, which were once mainstream, we have already accepted that human freedom can be curtailed. I believe that hunting falls into the same category.
Are there any other offsetting factors? The Burns report referred to 700 people who are directly employed by hunts and between 6,000 and 8,000 who are indirectly employed. If Parliament bans hunting, as I hope it will, I hope it will accept its responsibility towards anyone who loses their job as a consequence, as it did when the legislation to ban fur farming was passed.
Mrs. Winterton referred to the social structure. That can carry on. There is nothing to stop people dressing up and riding a horse across fields chasing a trail. That is drag hunting, and I would be happy to present the stirrup cup to my local hunt if that was what it was doing. I do not believe that that is a real objection.
The third factor is the effect on the fox population.
No, I will not.
We have had a period of foot and mouth disease in this country, and I would be interested to see some Government figures showing the impact of foot and mouth on the fox population. I have had no representations from my local farmers about the fox population being out of control because hunting was not allowed during that period.
I have been to see my local hunt; I visited the Southdown and Eridge hunt kennels in Ringmer. I asked how many foxes the hunt caught each year, and the answer was about 50. I do not believe that hunting on that scale has an overall impact on the fox population: it is insignificant.
Sometimes hunts argue that by catching foxes they are eliminating the weaker strains—which would mean that the fox population was being perpetuated by the hunt. At other times they say that they are solving a problem for farmers by killing a pest. Those two arguments seem slightly contradictory, and they are wheeled out on different occasions, depending on what argument the hunts are facing.
Does hunting increase or diminish the fox population? That question has not been answered, although I have noticed reports of hunts constructing artificial earths—apparently in order to breed foxes. That seems to be at variance with the need to control the fox population.
Finally, let me say something about the middle way. I am sure that my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik will violently disagree with me in a moment, but I have to say that in my view the middle way is the worst option of the three. It is a legitimate position to say that hunting should be banned. It is also legitimate to say that hunting has long been the tradition of this country, and should be continued; I do not happen to share that position, but I respect its integrity.
However, it does not make sense to say that the Government should interfere and set up a massive bureaucracy. Not only would that involve lots of red tape—which we are all supposed to be against—but it would appear to give Government approval to what I regard as a cruel sport. The middle way is not a middle way; it is hunting by other means, hunting with knobs on—or perhaps the nobs are on the horses.
I hope that the House will be able to reach a clear conclusion tonight. I would like a ban, but if the House decides to allow hunting to carry on, that is fine. We do not want the middle way, but we do want a resolution of this matter before long.
Five years ago, when the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Foster was being discussed, I opposed a ban and said that a way forward suggested by a former chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, Jim Barrington, might be the answer. That was a radically different approach that could have provided guarantees on the animal welfare aspects that concern people about hunting, while still respecting the rights of minorities.
I am pleased that the work carried out by my colleague Llin Golding—now Baroness Golding—and by the hon. Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and others, is now being seriously considered as a way forward. I thank the Minister for the way in which he has worked with all the groups and listened to them.
My reasons for opposing a ban, after looking into what happens, were related to what I discovered about the killing of foxes. I felt strongly that if we were serious about animal welfare, opposition to a ban should be our conclusion. Foxes may be furrier and sexier than rats, but they are still vermin, and need to be controlled and killed. When I consider all the different methods of killing foxes, my view, backed up by Lord Burns, is that hunting with hounds is the most natural way to kill them.
It is important to read what Lord Burns said, and remind ourselves that he did not find hunting with hounds cruel.
No, I am not giving way because I have only a few minutes.
In the House of Lords, Lord Burns was asked whether his report said that hunting was cruel, and he answered no. There is no doubt that the Burns report did not find that hunting was cruel. In fact, it said that if we stopped culling foxes in that way, many of them would die in much more horrible and painful ways, such as by gassing, poisoning or shooting—and foxes that are shot may not be killed immediately.
All that makes it clear that people's reasons for opposing foxhunting are not to do with animal welfare. There is no cruelty involved in foxhunting, any more than there is in shooting, gassing or poisoning foxes. The only people who can genuinely oppose foxhunting are those who do not eat meat, or kill anything, or wear leather. The reality is that we need to kill foxes, and we have to find a way that is as humane as possible.
We have to be honest about the fact that what really upsets some of my hon. Friends—and, perhaps, some Opposition Members too—is the idea that only toffs go hunting. If only hunters did not wear red coats, things might be different—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will have the chance to speak later.
I have spent some time with hunts now, which I had not done last time I spoke on this subject. When I visited the Thurlow hunt recently, and met many of the people involved, I found a more socially inclusive group of people out with the hunt than are to be found on our Back Benches—[Interruption.]
"I hold no brief for foxhunting. But at a time when the nation is plagued by a drugs epidemic, carjacking, burglary, street robbery, it seems a perverse set of priorities to make criminals out of thousands of people following a sport dating back hundreds of years".
In my constituency, just down the road in Vauxhall, there are people who want to ban hunting, but there are very few who want to make criminals out of people who hunt. People in my constituency are much more concerned about the fact that their streets are rife with criminals, that their cars are being broken into every day, that they are being mugged and having their mobile phones taken from them willy nilly, and that our streets are increasingly in the hands of real criminals.
I have to question the priorities of Parliament again. When the lives of our constituents are being made intolerable, what people are really asking for is a ban on being mugged, a ban on having to wait to get into hospital, and a ban on being homeless, or overcrowded and unable to be rehoused. Those are the issues that we as parliamentarians should be concerned about, rather than taking an attitude based on the feeling, "We don't like those people, so we'll ban them."
It is interesting that some people say that perhaps they will still allow fell hunting—presumably because the hunters are not on horses. The idea is that if people are on horses they are different from people on foot—or that if people, either on horses or walking, are working hard to kill foxes, so long as they are not getting any enjoyment out of it, that is all right. There is muddle and confusion among the people who want to ban hunting, and that is not in the interests of the countryside or of the people of this country.
I shall end by quoting the Prime Minister. A couple of years ago he talked about
"justice, freedom, tolerance" and a respect for minorities and said:
"These are the values that drive and govern my political life".
I cannot believe that we have to take away the livelihood of country people and bulldoze their rights and freedoms, all for the sake of trying to pretend that killing a fox by hunting is any more cruel than killing a fox by any other means. I hope that the House has more sense.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. It is a pleasure to follow Kate Hoey and to congratulate her not only on the wisdom of her remarks but on having the courage to speak out against the orthodoxy of her party. I congratulate her heartily on doing so.
It would be good if the Government could find time to debate a wide range of rural matters—this is one—in the House. They could have found the time to debate the aftermath of the foot and mouth disaster and to learn its lessons, which are not being learned by the public inquiry that ought to be taking place. They could have found the time to debate the need to make sure that meat imports into this country meet the standards of food produced at home. They could have found the time to debate the need to help rural tourism to recover from last year. However, they have not done so, and they have shown how grossly out of touch they are with the feeling of the countryside in the bizarrely inappropriate choice of hunting as the debate for today.
Some interesting points have been made. Mrs. Fitzsimons said that her constituents were more concerned about education, health and transport. That is precisely our point.
Mr. Campbell—I mention him only because of his sedentary interventions—warned about the other place and said that it was a place of privilege. Of course, it has largely become a place of the privilege of knowing the Prime Minister. That is why a large proportion of Members of the other place are sitting there. What is more, we know that the real reason for this debate, which was announced three weeks ago, was not to prevent the pursuit of a single fox by a pack of hounds, but to prevent the pursuit of a particular Secretary of State by the media and by my colleagues in the House.
Nevertheless, the Government said in their manifesto that they would have a vote on this issue, and, at some stage, they are entitled to do so. As we have discovered, feelings run high on this matter. My constituents, from everything that I have seen over many years, are very much in favour of being allowed to continue to hunt. I represent a very rural constituency. For some, hunting is a practical matter. For example, Hawes and High Abbotside parish council in Upper Wensleydale wrote to me on Friday—[Interruption.] I think that Mr. Banks knows about as much about upper Wensleydale as he does about Timbuctoo, if I may respectfully say so. The letter stated:
"As you will probably be aware, our local hunt, Wensleydale Foxhounds, does not hunt with horses, but on foot. The hunt is often called out at night by farmers to destroy foxes which are killing their animals and this service would be very much missed if this bill comes into force."
That is simple and practical, and is one of the reasons why the council is in favour of hunting being allowed to continue.
For others, hunting is a matter of employment. There is no doubt that scores of people in my constituency would lose their jobs if hunting were to be banned. Every Member of Parliament can sympathise with constituents who are worried about losing their jobs. For some, hunting is part of their rural way of life and of maintaining a balance in the countryside between the farmed animal and the wild predator, and of doing so as they have done for a very long time. Mr. Kaufman referred to 200 years ago—I know that he has now left the Chamber—and said that he would spend the remaining half of his parliamentary career campaigning against certain traditions. I will spend the remaining four fifths of mine campaigning for certain traditions, because there is value in them, and people should be free—this is a large part of the case—to pursue their customs, traditions and habits if they do not cause injury or gross inconvenience to others.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. [Hon. Members: "Right honourable".] I am sorry. I am grateful to the right honourable Gentleman. If he believed—I accept that we may dispute this—that suffering was caused to animals by foxhunting would he still feel that the freedom of the individual came first?
I would have to consider the alternatives. Anyone with an understanding of a rural area such as my constituency is in no doubt that some way of controlling the fox population is necessary. There is a choice between the methods of doing so. We live surrounded by predators, and not only when I am here in the House of Commons. If one lives where I live, one hears at night the screech of the owl descending on the mouse, one sees the stoat jumping on to the rabbit, and one captures in one's car headlights the fox going about its business, seeking the new-born lamb or the chicken coop door that has been left open. Predators do not consider the moral rights and wrongs as we do as human beings. They are predators, and will go on being predators in larger numbers. We have created an agricultural society with large numbers of sheep and chickens to support a huge predatory population of human beings numbering 56 million. Of course, that agricultural society can also support a huge fox population—if left to their own devices—that would wipe out many other species altogether.
One can read about the ludicrous contortions into which the so-called animal rights movement gets itself. It was reported that, last month, the Essex Wildlife Trust banned foxhunting and then became the target of furious protests by animal rights activists for ordering a cull of a booming fox population. The article stated:
"Since the fox population increased from four to five animals five years ago to about 20 today, the number of breeding pairs of ground-nesting lapwings has decreased from 38 to three, and the number of redshanks from 25 pairs to 10."
The trust's development manager said about the animal rights protesters:
"When we tell them that we have seen foxes killing lambs and ground-nesting birds, they simply do not accept it."
That is what we are up against. The protesters think that if the hunting of foxes is banned, the foxes will be deeply grateful and rush round to help the farmer at lambing time. That is the kind of ludicrous misconception that they have.
We must control foxes somehow. The alternative proposed by the animal rights movement is shooting, because it is clean, easy and so on. No one who has handled a gun could possibly come up with such a naive suggestion. One person wrote to a Sunday newspaper yesterday with an account of having seen a fox shot. The first shot broke the fox's leg, the second hit it from another direction, the third shot knocked it off its remaining feet, the fourth shot failed to kill it, and, in the end, its neck was broken because it was not killed by the four shots. Foxes do not obediently line up to be shot by firing squad. We do not have laser-guided shotguns to home in on them in the night. If shooting is the alternative, it will lead to much greater animal cruelty and inconvenience.
It sounds to me like the right hon. Gentleman's serious contribution to the debate was made much earlier.
In my remaining two minutes, let me make the other part of the case. What of animal cruelty? There will be far greater cruelty to animals if foxes are to be controlled in some other way. There will be cruelty to the hounds that will have to be put down—I have not noticed anyone volunteering to take hounds into their homes.
The hon. Gentleman is volunteering. That is very interesting. We shall put down his name to take hounds into his home. I have only two minutes remaining, and I am not going to give way again.
There will be greater cruelty to the foxes that will be killed in larger numbers by other means. There is also the question of respecting the rights of a minority. We often hear from many hon. Members about the need to respect minorities, and about the need to respect a culture of diversity. Why, therefore, is this particular minority being picked on? Why are people who fish not picked on? One can argue that fishing is an equivalent act of cruelty. The reason is that fishermen are large in number so hon. Members who wish to ban hunting do not pick on them. Why is ritual slaughter under certain religions, in which there is no stunning of the animals, not picked on? Many people would regard it as a great act of cruelty. It is not picked on because we respect particular different traditions and cultures. Why is the tradition and culture of foxhunting not respected when there is no compelling case to do away with it? It is because it can be picked on.
That is the hallmark of the bully throughout the ages and the signal of the abuse of majority power. If a majority in the House abuse their power in that way, it will be a deeply unattractive spectacle based on prejudice, ignorance and naivety that will do the cause of Parliament no good at all.
I have been consistently in favour of banning hunting from before I came into Parliament and throughout my time in the House. However, I must confess to the House—I know that this will disappoint some of my hon. Friends—that I have changed my mind. I shall explain my reasons, because this should be a thoughtful debate. It is an important subject.
I have been in the House for a long time and suffered a Prime Minister who believed in confrontation. She took on the miners and other minorities and made life hard and unpleasant for those who confronted her. I do not like that style of politics or the way in which some of my hon. Friends and colleagues use our position in power to drive through proposals about which I have certain concerns.
I approach this issue from a different angle and I wish to share my worries with the House. I have always cared about cruelty to animals. I have always hated it and wanted to minimise it, and I believe that my views have been consistent. However, I have also cared very much about the rural environment and the countryside that we must leave to our children and their children. I worry about both those issues, and most of those who have spoken in the debate agree on that. They want to minimise cruelty to animals and have a decent rural environment. We can have both and I positively believe that there is room for compromise.
No, because I have only 10 minutes.
One of my other worries is that many of the zealots on this issue—I am not referring to most of my colleagues—will not be content with banning hunting. They will go on to fishing and to the shooting of rabbits, pigeons, pheasants or whatever. They will not be satisfied until, as my hon. Friend Mr. Banks says, every sentient animal is protected. That is a dangerous position to take.
I know that some of my colleagues will not like me saying this, but we cannot separate this debate from other issues. For example, scientific and medical research must use animals in its experiments to push forward the frontiers of science and to help people who have certain diseases. We will be able to control those diseases because, in the long term, research will find the cures. However, the zealots involved on this issue—we cannot divide them up—have caused misery to those pursuing a scientific line of inquiry and carrying out their professional job. What happened to Huntingdon Life Sciences was a blemish on our national life. We must be careful to take a balanced view. These issues go together.
Norman Baker discounted the third way, but I make an appeal to the House to take it seriously. We should be able to say that the argument is not all on one side. When Mrs. Winterton spoke, I thought, "My Goodness, I have got to follow that and agree with some of the things that she said." [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Mr. Salter is giving the speech a good roasting.
One thing that many of us share is that we do not like the people who go hunting. I do not like many of them, but many of the people who hunt in the Colne valley and in Yorkshire do not have horses and they do not wear red coats. They hunt to reduce the numbers of what they regard as a pest, and do so in a fairly innocuous way.
My neighbour is an organic farmer, whom I very much admire. He cares about the environment and does not use chemicals. However, his livelihood is threatened by the fact that rabbits plague his land. The rabbit population is the most difficult thing to control, so my neighbour wants a group of well trained people with dogs and with the right equipment to reduce the rabbit population. However, what does he have to resort to? He has to resort to the use of gas. I do not know whether Members have seen a warren where the rabbits have been gassed, but it is not very pleasant.
There is something else that human beings have done to rabbits—our cuddly friends. We introduced the disease of myxomatosis and it returned five years ago. I never understood how it returned, but the effects of that man-delivered plague on the rabbit population are not very pleasant at all.
The more I have considered the subject, the more I have been concerned to learn whether the alternatives are any better. I am not convinced that they are. The turning point for me came when I read the Burns report, and I value highly the work that Terry Burns carried out. He got the balance absolutely right. The report did not conclude that hunting was the cruellest thing that one can do to animals or that it was much crueller than any other method of controlling their numbers. It concluded that there was not much to choose between the various options of killing them. It is not nice to kill an animal, and choices have to be made. I do not believe that the alternatives to hunting are much better.
My hon. Friend will have his turn to speak and I shall listen to him when the time comes.
I merely wish to address the issue, and I knew that that would not be popular with some on this side of the House. I have genuinely listened to the arguments, I have thought about them and I have changed my mind. After 30 years of holding one opinion, I have every right to change my mind, to tell the House that I have changed my mind and to give the reasons. All my reasons may not please my hon. Friends and I know that they will probably think that I am something of a deserter. However, the fact is that they must recognise that some people have concerns.
I note that there are very few people on these Benches compared with the 1997 debate in which I also spoke. I suspect that colleagues and the public outside are getting a little bored with the House's antics on this matter. Most people with common sense will say, "Why don't they reach a deal? Why don't they come to some sort of compromise such as a middle way?"
I believe that the Government will be remembered for certain things. I do not want them to be remembered for an obsession with foxhunting and for the hours that we have spent on the issue in this House and in Committee. However, people might remember us for that. I disagree with every word of some previous speakers in that I believe that the Government are delivering better health, better education and better law and order on our streets. I do not want all those achievements to be forgotten or for someone to write in 10 or 20 years' time that this Government were obsessed with hunting with dogs.
There is a way ahead, and it is called the middle way. It is a compromise under which we can cluster. We can reach a compromise with the other House, and that is the way forward. I urge my colleagues to think seriously about the issue and not to remain in the trenches of prejudice where they have been for too long.
Perhaps the earliest political discussion that I remember is one that took place when I was at university and we discussed the conclusions of the Wolfenden report and made the distinction between sin and crime. It was an important distinction to make. Many things that we do not approve of should not necessarily be made criminal. The first point that this debate should take into account is that it is not sensible to make criminals of all those of whom we disapprove or make criminal those activities that we do not wish to take part in ourselves and that we would perhaps prefer others not to enjoy.
A tolerant society is one in which we criminalise an activity only as a last resort. Toleration is not just about allowing people to do things of which we approve, but about allowing them to do things of which we do not approve. Sadly, sometimes people who want to ban hunting forget that; they also forget that many of the things that they do are not approved of by other people. As minorities—in one way or another we are all minorities—they rely on the majority respecting, whenever humanly possible, their right to act as they want; they do not want that right interfered with because they are a minority.
That is even more important in a multicultural and multiracial society. As a Minister, I had to face up to the issue of ritual slaughter, which I dislike very strongly. Religiously and philosophically, I believe that it is wrong; it is based on an unacceptable historical argument. However, for some people, it is a religious belief; Jews and Muslims have a right to live in our society and be respected. So, although I hated the concept of ritual slaughter, I agreed to its continuance because I believe in toleration; one should tolerate those with whom one disagrees. Above all, one does not put one's own views on such matters above the serious beliefs of others.
One must ask whether hunting is so immoral that it cannot be accepted. Some people believe that the House can enforce a secular morality; I dread to think what kind of things it might do, or might have done, if it acted on that. Nobody with religious views in Judaeo-Christian history—whether Anglican, Roman Catholic or Orthodox—believes that hunting is immoral, which begs the question of how those who claim the right to forbid others to do something on moral grounds manage to maintain their position. People whom we do not expect to take a clear moral position make it plain that they have taken such a position. It is hard to claim to be more moral than the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, particularly when one is an elected Member of Parliament.
I find it hard to accept the arguments of people who want a ban when they do not appear to understand how the natural world works. My right hon. Friend Mr. Hague gave a graphic description of the basic predatory characteristic of the natural order. We are part of the predatory chain, but our job includes keeping the balance in nature. The difference is that we have the right and ability to choose. The problem is not that we choose between killing foxes and not killing them; we have to choose the mechanism and the method by which we kill them.
The Burns report is only the latest in a series of investigations, all of which concluded that if hunting is not the least cruel option, it is certainly no crueller than the alternatives. It is all very well for people to go on voicing their opinions, but anyone who has looked seriously at the issue has come to that conclusion. If we deal with the reality of the situation, and if we decide to be as lacking in cruelty as possible, we must take the view that hunting is the best way of undertaking a necessary action.
No, we only have 10 minutes each; the hon. Gentleman has spoken ad nauseam on the subject, and no doubt we shall hear from him again.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks was right that some people's view on animals includes the belief that we should not intervene in the natural world at all. Dare I tell my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe that that view is heretical because it suggests, untruthfully, that nature would be much better if humans were not here at all? One must distinguish between those who take a sentimental Mable Lucy Atwell view of animals and those who understand the nature of the countryside and the role which mankind is supposed to play in it.
On the grounds of reality, we have to choose how we are going to keep foxes under control; I maintain that hunting is much the best way. Some people, however, believe that the debate is not about morality, diversity or reality. They take a puritanical view; they do not mind what people do as long as they do not enjoy it. I find it extremely difficult to accept the position of people who wish to stop others doing what they want because they think their opinion so important that it must be imposed on the rest of society.
That fascist element has characterised much of the argument that has taken place. Fascism is about doing to the minority what one would never get away with on a majority, and has been a distinctive feature of our debate. People who wish to get rid of hunting are afraid to say that they would like to get rid of fishing. There is no need to control the fish population, and people are allowed to treat them as they wish. There is a need to keep the fox population under control, but we are not allowed to do so. Members who want to deal with hunting are afraid to deal with fishing because they are afraid of offending the many voters who fish.
At stake is the diversity of our society; a sensible morality which is not overcome by sentimentality; an understanding of the reality of circumstances; and, above all, standing up for freedom and toleration. The idea that we would use the Parliament Act to cut back—
My hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman has every right to change his mind, but he should have spent more time reading the Burns report, paragraph 60 of which states:
"Our tentative conclusion is that lamping using rifles, if carried out properly and in appropriate circumstances, has fewer adverse welfare implications than hunting, including digging-out."
I do have 10 minutes; if the hon. Gentleman will let me make some progress, I will give way.
The report goes on to make observations about special circumstances in upland areas—the point on which the hon. Gentleman is presumably trying to intervene.
The other person who has changed her mind is my hon. Friend Kate Hoey. I have a copy of a letter to one of her constituents, dated
"Please be assured that I will actively support all moves in Parliament to ban hunting and to improve animal welfare generally."
I have never made a secret of the fact that that letter was written, but the difference between me and some of my colleagues is that, since then, I have begun to listen, look and understand.
No. I want to speak bluntly, because on this issue—as on so many others—I am the Government's best friend.
The indicative votes are worse than useless and will tell us nothing that we do not already know. I believe that hunting with dogs is cruel, inflicts unnecessary suffering and should be banned. Such sentiments are not being uttered by some Marxist from a different planet—[Interruption.]—not on this occasion, at least. Blue-chip organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have argued such views for years, but matters are not straightforward. The Prime Minister said recently that the third way is entering its third phase, but on this issue we seem to be stuck for ever. We are back where we started, endlessly dancing around and—as Norman Baker said—getting nowhere.
I shall give the House three guesses as to who said, in 1999,
"It will be banned, we will get the vote to ban as soon as we possibly can."
[Hon. Members: "The Prime Minister."] They guessed it—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. That is his view, unless he repudiates it and publicly says that he has changed his mind. Journalists tell me that he will join us in the Lobby this evening. That is great, but how do we get from where we are to where we want to be?
When I bump into the Prime Minister in the Lobby, I shall tell him that the answer is not to bring in a new Bill—that would involve further consultation, could take another two years to get on the statute book and may trigger the Parliament Act—but to bring back the Bill that was carried by the Commons in the previous Session and sent to the Lords. I have in my hand a copy of that Bill, which generated some 60 hours of debate. I know what will happen. This evening, we will vote for a ban; tomorrow, the Lords will vote for regulation; and on Thursday the Minister will tell the House that we need to reconcile those two divergent positions. I suspect that he will also say that the Bill that was carried overwhelmingly by the Commons in the previous Session is flawed, and that bringing it back is not an option.
If we endlessly prevaricate, hesitate and vacillate, we will lose a lot of support and people will start to ridicule us. Perhaps they will ridicule the Prime Minister and, by extension, the rest of us. On this issue, ridicule and mockery would be very difficult to cope with, especially when an option exists. That could be avoided by using the Parliament Act. The matter could be done and dusted by October—at the end of the current Session. The alternative is to allow it to drag on until 2003-04.
No. My hon. Friend—who was a Home Office Minister and took advice from parliamentary draftsmen—said that the Bill was workable. Even if it is flawed in some respects, the answer is not to throw it in the bin but to pass it and introduce a short, technical Bill in November to plug the gaps
There is no middle way. A middle way is an illusion—it is chasing moonbeams. The issue is not just the welfare of foxes—we heard earlier about the South Staffordshire pony club—but of deer, mink and hares. According to the pamphlet published in November 2000, the Middle Way Group had no policy on hare coursing and hare hunting, although I am not entirely sure whether it has a such a policy at the moment.
"the purpose of hare coursing is not to inflict unnecessary cruelty on the hare but to watch two greyhounds competing to show how skilled they are at turning or moving another animal."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B,
Why are greyhounds not muzzled, therefore? I invite him to intervene and say whether he believes that greyhounds should be muzzled, but I suspect that he will not.
I shall forget about that particular incident. The Minister for Rural Affairs would agree that the original Bill is unworkable because, as a Back Bencher, he participated in Standing Committee and saw how unworkable it was. I suspect that that experience is seared on his ministerial memory. On muzzling, I do not accept that it would answer the hon. Gentleman's point.
If a hare could speak, it would answer that point.
I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield that the Burns inquiry concluded that hare coursing is carried out for largely recreational purposes. In essence—this always excites a reaction from Opposition Members—we are talking about blood sports and killing for fun. In 21st century Britain, killing for fun should not be allowed.
No, I will not. As my amendment was not called for debate this evening, I hope that I will be allowed to raise this issue—and, if necessary, to vote on it—at the meeting of the parliamentary Labour party at 11.30 am this Wednesday, before my right hon. Friend the Minister explains to the House the Government's definitive position. It would be eccentric if Labour MPs were not allowed to express their views on whether the Hunting Bill should be brought back and the matter resolved once and for all in the current Session.
Future generations will look back on some things in disbelief, just as we look back in disbelief at cock fighting, bear baiting and, more recently, badger digging. One of the things on which they will look back in disbelief is that at the beginning of the third millennium we were still debating in this Chamber whether it was right and proper to allow people to chase an animal to exhaustion, with its killers closing in on it, causing it the most unspeakable fear before its death, and all in the name of tradition.
I have found some of the arguments mounted on the other side of the debate today incredible. Instead of making the case for keeping hunting, those in favour have sought to question the motives of those of us who believe that it should be abolished. Kate Hoey painted a wonderful picture of life under Labour. Apparently, one cannot walk down the street without having one's phone nicked and nobody can get an operation under the NHS. She said that those issues were more important. I agree, so let us get this issue out of the way and then we can concentrate on those more important issues.
The hon. Lady also claimed that those who opposed hunting were anti-toff. Even my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, for whom I have tremendous respect—he is my wonderful and fantastic right hon. Friend—ended up by saying that opposition to hunting was a product of prejudice and not liking the sort of people who hunt. Anti-toff? Moi? I am one of the few people in this Chamber who upheld the rights of hereditary peers to carry on in the House of Lords. I actually believed in that. I was one of those—and my right hon. Friend knows it—who argued for the repeal of the iniquitous Act that stopped them. To suggest that somehow I am prejudiced against what have been called toffs—it is a stupid expression—is a nonsense.
Apparently, I do not like people who go hunting. My parents hunted. I like my parents very much indeed.
Yes, indeed. They are wonderful, colourful scenes of olde England, and in olde England they firmly belong.
It is true that the Burns report said that hunting compromises the welfare of the fox. The only thing that surprises me about that is that it should take all those learned men all that time to decide that.
No. I have given way once and I do not intend to give up too much of my time.
One hon. Member told us to beware, because if we gave in on hunting, fishing would be next, but my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer said that fishing would not be abolished. Pro-hunt Members must make up their minds about which side of that argument they are on.
We also heard the usual old nonsense that banning hunting would affect employment. Yes, it will affect employment, but as I said in a previous debate, if we abolished crime we would put all the police out of work. If we abolished ill-health we would put all the nurses and doctors out of work. Will anybody argue that we should preserve crime and ill-health in order to keep people in jobs?
Hunting is either right or wrong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said that we must respect certain things because people sincerely believe in them religiously. I am not sure who believes in hunting religiously, but he argued that people's religions must be respected and that they should be allowed to do anything in the name of liberty that their religion dictates. Fine. I look forward to my right hon. Friend's private Member's Bill to legalise polygamy.
Even from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, who should know better, we heard all the arguments about how it is natural to hunt and to be a predator, and that that is practised widely throughout the animal kingdom. Yes, but should Members of Parliament take their standards from the animal kingdom? Do we seriously think that we should determine whether something is right or wrong by whether the animals do it? That seemed to be the proposition made by some of those who support hunting.
We are also told that the issue is one of liberty, and nothing else. It is about the liberty to do anything one wants to do. However, it has always been the purpose of the law to curtail liberty to do something that is believed by the democratically elected body of this House to be wrong. We eliminated cock fighting, bear baiting and badger digging. I do not say that those activities equate with hunting. Hunting is much less wrong than those activities, but my argument is that we curtail liberty when we believe that something is wrong.
Does my right hon. Friend think that fishing is wrong? If she is taking a stand on the issue of cruelty, her speech is illogically nonsensical if she would not also argue for banning fishing.
I shall come to that point in a minute. Some people argue for the retention of hunting on the basis that it is the normal method of fox control and that if we get rid of it something vastly more cruel will be put in its place. The Burns report says that hunting is responsible for only 6 per cent. of all fox destruction—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your protection against my various colleagues who wish to take issue with me.
Hunting is responsible for only 6 per cent. of fox destruction. The idea, therefore, that we wish to abolish the only means of fox control is wrong. What that figure proves beyond doubt is that hunting is not even an efficient pesticide, which is just about the one argument that could be made for keeping it.
If hunting is not an efficient pesticide, it has no purpose. There is some purpose in fishing—and I come to the point made by my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack. I agree that not all fishing has a purpose, but one can fish and then eat the result. [Hon. Members: "Not all the time."] I did not say that that applied to all fishing. Either my hon. Friends were not listening or they did not want to listen.
The last argument that is often mounted is that those who hunt want to be left alone and that they cause no problem to other people. Those who make that argument should read a letter from a rural resident who has lived for 20 years in a foxhunting area of Hampshire. Her animals have been attacked, and she has to keep them in whenever the hunt is in the area. She talks about the immense damage that hunt supporters do to verges and other parts of the countryside and she says that although the hunt claim to care for their own animals, the state of the horses and hounds at the end of the day calls that claim into question.
It is right that this House should consider whether to ban hunting. When everything is added up, the argument is decidedly in favour of a ban. However, we are all entitled to our views and neither side should imagine that the views of the other are the product of prejudice or ignorance.
I was about to make that point. I had no choice but to attend on Mr. Speaker at the Commission, and it was a privilege to do so. I found the experience a damn sight more intellectually stimulating than certain aspects of this debate.
May I say to, on this occasion, my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe, that it is a privilege to follow her? She made a brave speech. Frankly, nothing more needs to be said and we could all go into the Lobby, but I have brought my speech and I intend to make it. If the Conservative party chose her as its leader, the Labour Government would find themselves in considerable difficulties. Fortunately, I know that such good sense does not prevail on the Opposition Benches.
I say to Mr. Gummer, who unfortunately has gone—[Hon. Members: "He is back."] I say to his holiness that it is interesting that he mentioned ritual slaughter, about which I have said a number of things in the House before. He says that we should respect those religious conventions. What about Sharia law and stoning to death for adultery? Would he suggest that we must also respect that? If we did, there would be an awful lot of stone dodging in this Chamber.
Mr. Hague, for whom I have a great deal of respect, says that we should get on to other matters and asks why we are obsessed. I have heard him make two speeches since he stood down as Conservative leader, both on this subject. A large number of Members are in the Chamber, so clearly we are interested, and the idea that the debate is forcing other issues out is nonsense.
People may say, "Why aren't you dealing with the problems in law and order, education and transport?" Well, we are, but the fact is that this is not an administrative Chamber. We do not run the education service or the transport system or the hospitals. We pass laws. That is what we are here to do. Some say that we are obsessed, even though we have made our decision in favour of a ban so clear on so many occasions, and that those at the other end of the Palace are not obsessed, even though they keep obstructing it. We have our priorities right; Opposition Members and Members of the other place have their priorities wrong.
We spent more than 100 hours debating the last two Bills on the issue and there is no doubt about what will happen tonight, but I must pick up a couple of points. The first is the idea that foxes are vermin. If they are vermin, why is there a close season? I do not understand that; it makes no sense whatever.
It seems to me that continual pressure on vermin is the way to deal with them, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, those who support hunting do not want foxes to be eliminated. That is why, for example, foxes were introduced to the Isle of Wight and why certain hunts put carcases out to feed foxes—they need the sport.
The idea that foxhunting is an effective method of fox control is nonsense. Only about 5 per cent. of foxes are dealt with through the hunt and most are killed on the roads. Indeed, we would probably be better off issuing the hunts with four-wheel drive vehicles so that they can run the foxes over. For me, this is a moral issue. I cannot understand how anyone takes pleasure from killing a wild animal, and the aspect of bloodlust fills me with detestation.
We have made clear in the Chamber how we feel, and it is about time that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench respected that. I have a lot of time for my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is a man of great compassion, and I know that he wants foxhunting abolished. The fact is that our manifesto said that we would bring the matter to a conclusion, but we can reach a conclusion only if the will of the House of Commons as expressed in a vote is respected.
I do not understand what the Government are frightened of. The issue is not about town versus country and I have received a large number of letters, as other Members have, clearly from people in rural areas who abhor foxhunting. Indeed, the most recent opinion polls, taken in late January, suggest that a majority of the public favour a ban on foxhunting, hare coursing, stag hunting and mink hunting. Do not forget: this issue involves not only foxhunting, but all those other creatures. No one could call stags and hares vermin or pests.
With such a majority, what are my Government worried about? Is it the Countryside Alliance? Frankly, they should not worry. Most of its members are die-hard Tories who would not think of voting Labour even if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister formed the Downing street hunt and went into the royal parks to get hold of foxes. There might be a reason for doing that. Not many people know this, but last year 110 foxes were removed from the royal parks.
That is effectively a straw poll based on telephoning, but the MORI poll that I referred to was scientific. The hon. Gentleman should take note of that. Now, what is 17 minus nine?
I cannot, because my mental arithmetic, which is rather deficient, tells me that I have only two minutes left.
Let me say something about the middle way. There is no middle way. We cannot compromise on cruelty. We cannot have some system of Queensberry rules whereby an animal can be ripped to pieces and that is okay. It is totally unacceptable, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister does not come back with a recommendation, following a change of opinion in the House of Lords, that we should accept the middle way. I am sure he will not. Why would the House of Lords change its position and go for the middle way? Because the middle way is hunting by another name. That is all it is—hunting with a bit of bureaucracy. Quite honestly, that is totally unacceptable to us.
We will face an electoral backlash, and I recommend that my right hon. Friend the Minister read the many hundreds of letters that I have received from people who say, "This is a matter of good faith for the Government." He must bear that in mind. I trust that he will look after us and I hope that he does not become the political equivalent of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, because he has suffered from that in the past. I want him to prosper and do well. The best way to achieve that is to recommend to the Prime Minister that we bring back the Bill that the House passed and the House of Lords rejected.
I have never taken part in a debate in the House on foxhunting, but we have debated it so frequently in recent times that it is necessary for me to give a word, at least for the benefit of my constituents.
I have not changed my mind, although I have the greatest respect for those who have over the years. I have always voted against a ban on foxhunting and I have always made it perfectly clear to my constituents on both sides of the argument that I oppose any attempt to ban it. I feel that it would be particularly wrong to invoke the criminal law against people in my constituency who take part in the three hunts that enter it in their traditional pursuit of foxhunting, unless some compelling public interest reason can be found so to do. It is the use of the criminal law that would most appal me.
I shall not have time, in 10 minutes, to go into all the arguments—which the aficionados of this debate seem to know backwards—about the number of foxes killed in particular ways at different times of the year, the employment consequences, and so on, although I have become familiar with most of them over the years.
I find myself allied with the majority of people who have spoken on this side of the debate so far, when I single out the one thing that places me on this side—my instinct. The more I listen to the debate, the more I believe that most people on both sides are reacting by instinct when making their personal judgments. No doubt they are doing their best on the subject on behalf of their constituents. My instinct is on the side of a liberal and tolerant approach to society. I agree with all who have said that it should be the aim of the House, in setting the laws for society, to encourage the greatest possible degree of tolerance of a wide variety of lifestyles and customs, and we should hesitate strongly before we intervene against that.
The remarks of Mr. Kaufman, with whom I have often debated, were particularly wide of the mark. I do not know whether he was trying to comfort himself by saying that those in favour of foxhunting were somehow akin to those who have been against every other social reform of the last 200 years. I have always been against capital punishment, and on the side of liberal divorce reform. I regard myself as a liberal social reformer. It is absurd of the right hon. Gentleman to say that the invocation of the criminal law in these circumstances is somehow akin to all the enlightened liberal reforms that have been supported on both sides of the House over the last three decades, and which will, I hope, continue to be so supported.
I sympathise with the difficulty of the courageous Members on both sides of the House who are out of touch with their party majority on this issue, as I suspect that I am out of touch with the opinion of the majority of my constituents. I do not deceive myself on that. There are three hunts in the rural part of my constituency; one third of my constituency is suburban, and two thirds are rural. I suspect that, if an opinion poll were held there today, there would be a majority in favour of banning foxhunting, although I am encouraged by the way in which the national opinion polls appear to have been moving recently, as people face up to what is involved in the issue.
Norman Baker said that there was an enormous majority in favour of a ban in his constituency. With the greatest respect, we do not make the criminal law on the basis of opinion polls. A majority of 9:1 could be in favour of a ban in my constituency, but I would not regard that as conclusive, and I hope that we never would. That would lead to the intolerant attitudes to which my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer has referred. If we start having opinion polls about all the unpleasant and distasteful habits and customs of some members of society, and suggesting that their findings should be made part of the criminal law, foxhunting would come way down the list, and quite a lot of strange enactments would have to go through the House.
My right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe made a brilliant speech, and, as usual, I admire her courage. I have to say to her, however, that we tolerate polygamy in this country. We do not allow polygamous marriage, because of our views on the family and because we do not think that our civil law should encourage the legal formation of polygamous unions. Unless we change the law, however, someone who comes to this country with his coterie of wives—having legitimately been married in a country whose jurisdiction allowed him to do so—is indeed allowed to enjoy a polygamous marriage in this country and even, occasionally, to claim benefits for his various family members if anything goes wrong. That would not be popular with my constituents, but I would defend his right to have his polygamous marriages recognised.
The criminal law should be used only with great care, when someone's behaviour is not only something of which the majority—or any of us—disapprove, but is doing positive damage to the legitimate interests, property or well-being of other citizens, or doing great damage to society. That is the reason we do not normally use the criminal law in areas of this kind.
Of course, we use the criminal law in relation to animal welfare. This is a matter of judgment and degree. I entirely support the continuance of the ban on bull baiting and badger baiting, because they involve capturing an animal and placing or tethering it in a confined position for the purpose of setting up a bloody fight with dogs, on which people bet or from which they take a certain amount of satisfaction. We regard that as so distasteful and disgusting that it damages society to encourage its prevalence. These are matters of judgment, however, and it is frankly bizarre to leap straight from that standpoint to the banning of the countryside method of foxhunting as part of the cull of foxes that has to take place.
This is relevant not only because foxhunting is traditional, although that is important, but because it takes place in the setting that it does. My right hon. Friend Mr. Hague has already mentioned the natural setting, and people's enjoyment of it. I take a great interest in conservation, and in bird watching. When I support the protection of the peregrine and the hen harrier, I am in favour of inhibiting "man the hunter". I think that it should be a criminal offence to shoot such birds, because society is impoverished by reducing their numbers. We therefore encourage their numbers to grow. They are, however, fairly deadly killing machines when they attack some of the other birds that I watch. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and everyone who understands nature knows that many animals are predated upon, and that they, in turn, predate.
In the context of conservation plans, however, we do not have a natural environment any more. We have a man-made environment in this country. We have to manage even the nature reserves that we preserve, and we have to cull. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds often has great difficulty explaining to its members that it really has to cull that Walt Disney-like little duck, the ruddy duck, because it will otherwise damage other, rarer species. Foxes have to be culled, and I find it impossible to draw a judgmental line that involves saying that it is all right to carry on shooting and gassing them—and that it is all right to do that to rabbits—but that it is uniquely unacceptable for people to hunt, in a traditional way and in a natural setting, an animal that hunts in the same setting itself by pursuing and killing its prey.
We should not be allowed to make criminals of the perfectly respectable, civilised people who take part in hunting. They are law-abiding, decent citizens. I do not hunt, but they are people who would not understand why they were being classed with the criminals of Vauxhall if they were subject to a law such as this. Many of them hunt and fish, and there is no logical distinction between the two activities. With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, people do not fish because they are starving and need to eat. They fish because they enjoy the process of pursuing the fish, and many of them throw them back again. Such people do not go rough shooting because they want to eat all the rabbits that they shoot, and we cannot get through all the pigeons that get shot. Pigeons are not shot in sufficient numbers nowadays to protect crops. This is a way of life enjoyed by respectable people, such as the people of the Vale of Belvoir, in my constituency.
This measure is being driven through largely for the benefit of the prejudices of the Labour party, and being handled in a ridiculous way by dragging it out and by making us vote and vote again until we all become good people and vote in the moderate way that lets the Government off the hook. It is a bizarre way of proceeding, and a parliamentary majority, even of this size, should not be used in this intolerant and unfeeling way. We should vote on the side of reason.
I want to start by quoting from an article by John O'Farrell in The Guardian on
"If 'country sports' really are a sport, how come the same side always wins? Does this always come as a surprise to the participants? Do the hunters look on excitedly with their fingers crossed to see whether the fox rips the dogs to pieces or vice versa? You don't get the fox being interviewed on Sportsnight beforehand, saying: 'Well Brian, I'm really confident about this one. I've had a couple of fights in the run-up; there was that easy win against Mr. Rabbit, but this is the big one I've been training for'.
'So you're not worried that the bookies have you at a 1,000:1 against beating this pack of foxhounds?'
'What, you mean there's more than one of them? Er, excuse me—I've just got to call to my agent'."
Foxhunting is as much a sport as badger baiting or cock fighting was, and it is just as barbaric. One form of cruelty that is often overlooked in this debate is the unnecessary suffering caused to the thousands of dogs used in fox, deer, hare and mink hunting. I am in no doubt as to the immense suffering caused to wild mammals when they are chased to exhaustion, brutally savaged by a pack of hounds or forced to fight underground with terriers. The Burns inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales has been mentioned often today, as we might expect. It concluded that hunting with dogs "seriously compromises the welfare" of the foxes, deer, hares, and mink. What is often forgotten, however, is the plight of hunting hounds and terriers. No one has mentioned that today.
The plight of the foxhound starts early in its short life. Contrary to what the Countryside Alliance would have us all believe, it is not natural for foxhounds to hunt foxes. It sickens me to say that puppies that do not show aptitude for hunting, or whose colouring or body shape does not meet the requirements, are usually shot by the kennelman. Foxhounds fortunate enough to make the grade as puppies are trained to chase and kill foxes during the cub-hunting season. It is a particularly unpleasant aspect of hunting that involves the chasing and killing of fox cubs for the purpose of teaching young hounds to kill.
Hunts will head for wherever the scent of their quarry takes them, which is what makes the route of hunts for live quarry so unpredictable. Many hounds are run over on the roads, or even hit by speeding trains after straying on to railway lines. Others are injured on barbed-wire fences, or are lost from the pack for days on end.
In November 1999, six hounds were electrocuted and killed as the New Forest Foxhounds trespassed across a railway line. The incident was witnessed by passengers on the London to Bournemouth train that ran over the dead bodies of the hounds. Not only did the incident cause the senseless loss of the lives of six hounds; the delay caused to the train led to further huge delays. Sixty-one other trains were delayed.
The Wiltshire Times reported the needless deaths of three beagles from the Wiltshire and Infantry Beagles at Steeple Ashton, near Trowbridge. A car hit two of them as they chased their hare across the A350 between West Ashton and Stoney Gutter, and one sustained fatal injuries. Another dog was killed at a nearby roundabout, and the third fatality occurred as the dog tried to make its way back to the pack.
No. I have not enough time.
That is not all. There is no gentle retirement home for these poor animals. When hounds reach the age of six or seven, about half their normal life expectancy, most are simply shot by the very people whom they have served loyally since their birth. That makes a mockery of the hunts' claim that in the event of a ban on hunting with dogs they will have no alternative to shooting them: they shoot them anyway. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 hounds are killed in that way by hunts each year.
For some time the Countryside Alliance has used its dogs to blackmail the public by arguing, for instance, that all hounds would need to be destroyed in the event of a ban. Being a dog lover, I have looked into that claim. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a mass slaughter of hounds in such circumstances would be irresponsible and unnecessary. The RSPCA has pledged to do all that it can to prevent such needless destruction at the hands of the hunts. The committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs found that
"any need to put down hounds or horses, in the event of a ban, could be minimised if there was a suitable lead-in time before it was implemented".
The Government's Hunting Bill, produced in March last year, provided for such a lead-in period—although I believe that responsible hunts should start to wind down their breeding programmes immediately to reduce the number left in the event of a ban.
When the time comes for hunts to disband, three options will be open to them: to disband and rehome their hounds, to disband the hunt but keep their hounds, and to convert to drag hunting. I believe that a switch to drag hunting is the preferable option, as it would allow the hunt to continue the so-called sport, the pageantry and the social side while allowing the hounds to continue to be kept in packs. Hounds that cannot be rehomed with drag hunts should be assessed for their suitability for rehoming elsewhere. The RSPCA has offered to work with hunts to help find alternative homes for puppies and grown dogs.
Perhaps the most brutal and callous form of cruelty inflicted on dogs in the name of sport occurs in what is known as terrier work. Most registered foxhunts use the services of terriermen or fox diggers—people employed to find, dig out and kill foxes that have found an underground refuge during a hunt. That activity has become a "sport" in its own right, attracting thousands of enthusiasts who kill an estimated 50,000 foxes a year just for the fun of it.
Most people are familiar with the illegal practice of badger digging, in which terriers are sent underground to find badgers. That often results in appalling injuries to both dog and badger. Fox digging works in exactly the same way; the only difference is that fox digging is legal, because foxes are not afforded the same legal protection as badgers.
The legal loophole that allows the digging out of foxes while outlawing the same practice in the case of badgers has provided those engaged in the illegal practice of badger baiting with a convenient alibi. In recent years there have been several court cases in which suspected badger baiters have escaped—or attempted to escape—conviction by claiming that they were hunting for foxes rather than for badgers.
Only last month, a gang of suspected badger baiters escaped conviction owing to the very same loophole. The six men, who were accompanied by 12 dogs—12 dogs for one fox!—were found by police at the entrance of what was believed to be a badger sett in Wales. They claimed that they had been digging for a fox that had gone to ground. The court heard that two of the dogs had been seen trying to get into a tunnel at the bottom of the hole, and that a squealing noise could be heard. When one of the dogs was pulled out of the tunnel it was heavily bloodstained, and was later found to have badger hairs in its mouth. A veterinary surgeon who examined the dog said
"The injuries to the dog were consistent with dogs fighting a badger".
The six were acquitted by magistrates who felt it could not be proved that the men were hunting badgers rather than foxes.
When a fox finds an underground refuge during a hunt, terriers are sent into the earth to locate it. If a terrier finds the fox an underground battle may ensue between the two animals, in which both dog and fox can suffer horrific injuries. The fox is then either flushed from the earth by the terrier, or dug out and shot at close range by a waiting terrierman.
Not surprisingly, there have been several successful prosecutions of a number of terrier owners for failing to seek veterinary treatment for terriers injured during such encounters. I am pleased to say that a recent case of that type led to recognition from the High Court that those who send terriers into earths where an underground battle may ensue as the terrified quarry tries to defend itself can be guilty of cruelly ill-treating their dogs—not to mention the suffering inflicted on the fox. These can hardly be regarded as the activities of animal lovers.
Hunting wild animals with dogs inflicts immense cruelty on both dogs and wildlife, and is totally unjustifiable. It can be prevented only by the introduction of a complete banning of such barbaric and bloodthirsty so-called sports.
Finally, let me make a few observations about the so-called middle way. Again, I quote from John O'Farrell in The Guardian.
"In fact the government is promoting a middle way which would involved foxhunting only being permitted under licence. This would be like solving the problem of burglary by issuing housebreaking permits and requiring the burglars to close the door behind them."
Proponents of the middle way tell us that it is not a compromise, and I agree. That is about the only sensible thing they say. It is not possible to make hunting "slightly" barbaric, or to allow animals to be "almost" torn apart. I cannot see for the life of me what difference it will make to the fox that is torn to shreds if those doing it are licensed. It is plain stupidity: it is a hunter's fallback, and it rubber-stamps cruelty. It is merely—
The speech of Mr. Steinberg reflected an earlier observation by Mr. Banks, who said that there could be no compromise over cruelty. The hon. Member for City of Durham delivered a similar message at greater length—but this whole area is riddled with compromises, as it has to be.
Even the legislation preferred by those who want a total ban is full of compromises. It is a compromise that it does not include fishing; it is a compromise that it does not include stalking. Actually it does include stalking, but the last time we considered the Bill the Government tabled an amendment—after I had pressed them on the point—to exempt it from the effects of the Bill.
These are not simple black and white issues. We are discussing how species are controlled, and what methods can be used to control them. Some people feel strongly that hunting is a particularly cruel method. As I shall explain, I do not agree. At the end of the day there are compromises. My hon. Friend Lembit Öpik and others who have worked with him on the middle way proposal seem genuinely to seek a compromise to allay public anxieties about activities that some think should be banned or restricted, while not banning the sport altogether.
My view has been that we do not need to go that far, and that the kind of supervision that would be put on a statutory basis if one of the options that we are considering tonight were accepted is sufficient. I understand why people want to go further. All these issues involve compromises.
It is difficult to bring something new to the debate at this stage of the evening, especially given that many of those hon. Members who are here are determined to speak later to express their own strongly held views, whatever side they are on. I want to contribute something from the standpoint of someone who represents an area in which hunting is pretty significant. It is part of the way of life, as are shooting and fishing, although many people hold contrary views; there are plenty of opponents of hunting in my constituency as well as people who take part in it. As someone who is philosophically a liberal, I have to look at it from that philosophical standpoint.
I first have to look at what we are doing. We are not discussing whether we disapprove of hunting, as some hon. Members do. We are discussing whether it should be a criminal offence—whether it should be banned by law. We should therefore look first at what consequences may follow if it were made a criminal offence. It would undoubtedly—I do not think that the proponents can disagree with this—deprive a lot of people of the freedom to carry out an activity that they have carried out for many years in the genuine belief that it is a reasonable contribution to the life of the countryside and does not involve unreasonable cruelty.
A ban would clearly restrict freedom. It would affect jobs. A number of people in my constituency depend wholly on hunting for their employment and indeed their home. It has a wider effect on the rural economy. A great many businesses in areas such as mine would be very adversely affected by a ban on hunting. Saddlers, for example, derive most of their income from hunt-related horse activity, which would reduce sharply if hunting were banned. In an area such as mine, there are landscape benefits when people who support hunting, landowners and farmers, preserve parts of the land in a way that is not the most economically attractive or viable because it is beneficial for hunting or shooting. We all gain benefit from that.
Those arguments would in themselves still not be sufficient if we could demonstrate that hunting were sufficiently cruel to justify our making it a criminal offence and sending people to prison for it, but that is the argument. There are some arguments that are irrelevant, such as, "We do not like the people who do it," which I have heard quite often outside the Chamber and occasionally inside it, or the argument that people who do it enjoy killing. I have often heard that in this Chamber. It is misleading because most of the people who take part in hunting do so for the excitement of the ride and the chase, not for the kill.
I must try to deploy my arguments. I will see if I have any time at the end to allow interventions.
It is also the case that if the argument had any force, it could be applied to all the methods of controlling vermin, or indeed any species. If a person gets job satisfaction from his work as a mole-catcher, do we ban the control of moles as a species? If a person enjoys rough shooting, do we ban it simply on the ground that he enjoys it? We cannot do that.
What we should be very concerned about is the excesses and the abuses. Where we see hunts where the fox is torn away out of the hole and thrown to the hounds, we have to be very concerned. Where we have hunts where foxes are bred for the sport of it, that is not pest control. That is pure bloody sport. However—
I think that the hon. Gentleman is on the same tack. He is looking for ways of ensuring that hunting is carried out properly. That can be done by the supervisory system in the first option. My hon. Friend Lembit Öpik and others suggest a method that may give more public confidence but that is not the same thing as saying that the proper and well-regulated conduct of hunting should be a criminal offence.
I was dealing with some arguments that one cannot apply and that are irrelevant. Then there are arguments that are insufficient, such as the fact that one personally does not approve of hunting. Many hon. Members feel very strongly that hunting should not happen, or for that matter that many of their constituents do not approve of it. Again, there is an important distinction between what we do not like and do not approve of, and what we pass laws against.
Philosophically, as a liberal, I have to address that question time and again. Sometimes I have to revise my opinions on what I am entitled to ban. I am faced with the question: why am I entitled to prevent someone else from doing something that they feel strongly they should be allowed to do? I have to have an overwhelming argument and the overwhelming argument in this case has to be the cruelty argument.
Any serious examination of the evidence cannot draw a wide distinction between the amounts of cruelty or suffering involved to the fox in the different methods of control and killing. If there are distinctions, they are quite small and marginal. If anything, they may err in favour of hunting. They may not. They may go the other way, but on any analysis, the distinction cannot be said to be of the scale that makes the difference between sending someone to prison and accepting that their activity can be legally carried out even if one does not like it. That is where the argument for a ban falls.
I must try to ensure that I have deployed all my arguments before I give way again.
My fear, and it has been expressed by others, is that the only consequence of a ban would be that, in those areas where hunting takes place, much more use would be made of other methods. The Burns report points out that, in some of those areas, it is difficult to do that. In particular, the report refers to upland areas. Paragraph 61 comes just after the bit that was quoted by Mr. Prentice, who came to an unexpected stop in the middle of a sentence. The following sentence says:
"In the event of a ban on hunting, it is possible that the welfare of foxes in upland areas could be affected adversely, unless dogs could be used, at least to flush foxes from cover."
Any serious look at the evidence fails to provide that broad distinction, which could properly be the basis of saying that hunting should be illegal, whereas the other methods of controlling foxes can remain legal.
Hardly anyone is trying to say that we should not kill foxes. It is generally recognised that there is a need to kill at least some foxes and to control the population. People are not arguing for the elimination of foxes, either. Hunting does not eliminate foxes. It is in the interests of hunts that there should remain some foxes. It is an argument about keeping a level of population that is tolerable in relation to the farming activities upon which the foxes are predators. It is a question of balance.
One of the things that fascinates me is that the legislation has never been defined in those terms. The legislation has never been defined as an attempt to ban the killing of foxes except in certain circumstances. The legislation has never been defined in terms of attempts to ban cruelty. The word "cruelty" does not really appear in the Hunting Bill. The legislation concentrates on the use of dogs. When we start to look at it in detail, we discover that many of the other methods of control that would have to be used if we did not have fox hunting also rely on the use of dogs.
The Minister for Rural Affairs will remember vividly the discussions in Committee. We came to the point where it became clear that the Bill as drafted banned stalking with dogs, and it had not been the intention of the promoters or of the Government that it should. That is the problem. Bills have never been drafted in terms of what are supposedly the objectives of those who want them passed into law: they have never been drafted in terms of killing or in terms of cruelty. It comes down to drafting a Bill in terms of the use of dogs. Then the practical difficulties begin.
In Committee in the previous Session, we found when we looked at the Bill in detail how difficult it was to get the Bill into the sort of order that would not preclude all sorts of other activities, including other forms of pest control involving other mammals—for example, rats—so there is a whole area of difficulty about drafting the legislation correctly.
Technical difficulties cannot be the only reason for taking a view that the legislation should not go forward, because one assumes that a solution can be found to take it forward. What they point to is the inability to define the purpose of the legislation in terms of bringing an end to cruelty or to killing. That is not what it is about. If those who promote this legislation go to their constituency and to the country in general and say, "We are going to get a Bill through that will mean that foxes will never be killed or suffer any more," that would be seriously misleading. The question they then have to face is why they are prepared to send people to prison for hunting—
When I spoke on this subject approximately 14 months ago, I had high hopes that we would make some progress. Since I came into the House in 1992, we have had numerous debates and free votes on this issue and we are no further on. I issue a friendly warning to my right hon. Friend the Minister. The credibility of the Labour party is on the line over this issue—it is as simple as that. I want to spend more time talking about that than the issue of cruelty, anti-hunting, and what is right and what is wrong.
In a democracy, when a majority of the population want something, it is the duty of the Government to ensure that they get it. If the Government do not do that, and the situation goes on for 10 years, the whole political process becomes denuded. Like many other Members of Parliament, I have had numerous letters along those lines. Some people think that there is an unholy alliance between the Labour party hierarchy and the Countryside Alliance. I should like to think that that is not true. I do not think that it is true, but I well understand that there are people who feel that way.
I am not giving way; I do not have time. The hon. Gentleman will have his chance.
When people say that they see no progress being made, and ask, "What is the use of the political process?", they have a point. If the Labour party does not get things right, and if my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs does not make the right sort of statement after the vote against hunting, is it will affect us badly at the next general election. I do not doubt that for one minute. I hope that people will take note of that.
I shall say a word or two about the merits or demerits of the case. We have not three, but two options tonight. We can abolish hunting with dogs, which the majority of people want, or we can use one of the other two systems that keep it going. There is no difference between an unregulated system and a licensed system. The licensed system simply appears to give a little more credibility to what is barbaric and unacceptable.
We are not talking about people being against the culling of foxes. That is as old as mankind. We no longer have wolves and bears in this country, because they were a threat to man's food supply, and they were eliminated. I have no doubt that foxes will be kept down, whatever method is used.
People wax lyrical about what a wonderful thing the hunt is, but I cannot think of a worse way of destroying an animal. Only two other methods come to mind, and they are similar. One is to boil the fox alive, and the other is to burn it alive. Those are just about the only alternatives that are worse than hunting.
A small vociferous minority have been able to hold sway for far too long. The vast majority do not want hunting to go on; they want something done about it. It is all right talking about tolerance. Like everyone else, I accept that it is wrong for minorities to be persecuted, but we are not speaking of persecuting minorities. The minority will not be affected in any way, other than losing a certain type of enjoyment.
My hon. Friend Mr. Steinberg made it clear that there was a simple alternative. If people want to go on enjoying the pageantry, the uniforms and all the rest of the rigmarole, they can use a drag hunt. It is quite satisfactory. That is the real compromise, not licensing.
The same arguments in favour of hunting have probably been used for the past 500 years. No doubt the same arguments were put forward when eminent people were trying to abolish the slave trade—"Oh, you can't interfere with people's rights. People have a right to buy and sell slaves." When we stopped children cleaning chimneys, the opponents no doubt said, "Oh, we can't interfere with someone's personal freedom." Those arguments are ludicrous. They have no credibility whatever—none at all.
A small, extremely influential minority seem to have the Government frightened. That is my impression, and the impression of many members of the public. If, after the vote against hunting tonight, the Government do not do something about it, and if my right hon. Friend the Minister's statement is not to the effect that we will use the Parliament Act if the House of Lords once again proves obstructive, we will lose a tremendous amount of credibility.
I shall not say much more, as I said all I had to say 14 months ago. Hunting is a barbaric practice which we in the House should be ashamed to say still goes on in this country. Unless we are prepared to do something about it, the rest of the country will hold us in the contempt that we will thoroughly deserve.
I begin with two words of thanks. First, a word of thanks to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, after my earlier challenge to the Chair about the right to speak of Mr. Banks, my fellow Chelsea supporter. His speech was entertaining but, I am afraid, not particularly convincing.
I also express my gratitude to the Minister for the evenhanded way in which he has approached the matter so far. I have every confidence in his evenhandedness, despite his earlier record and voting on the issue. I am grateful to him for the great courtesy that he showed to the Middle Way Group at the meeting that we had with him.
Scylla, as hon. Members will remember, was a horrible six-headed monster who lived on a rock on one side of a narrow strait, and Charybdis was a whirlpool on the other side. When ships passed close to Scylla's rock in order to avoid Charybdis, she—the monster—would seize and devour the sailors. Aeneas, Jason and Odysseus all had to pass through the narrow strait, and when they passed, they were not engaging in some soggy compromise or refusing to take some braver, nobler path; they were taking the only safe path, a middle way, and one that demanded great courage and skill.
So it is that I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Kate Hoey, who spoke earlier, Lembit Öpik and an increasing band of adventurers in the House, including Mr. Sheerman and, I believe, Huw Irranca–Davies. I am proud to count myself among their number as we steer the middle way between the hunt banners of Scylla and the countryside campaigners of Charybdis.
I shall not rehearse all the arguments in favour of hunting—that has already been done spectacularly well, particularly by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague—nor will I rehearse all the arguments against, although others have done that less persuasively.
I shall simply try to demolish eight of the arguments most frequently deployed against our proposition—a twofold proposition, remember, that hunting should be licensed and a new offence created of causing unnecessary suffering to a wild mammal. Hunting without a licence issued by the new authority would be a criminal act attracting a fine of up to £5,000. The authority could revoke a licence as a punishment for breach of a tough code of conduct.
Let us consider the eight arguments—first, that to license hunting is to license cruelty. Nonsense. That is just wrong. To ban hunting is to increase the suffering of the fox population, as speech after speech from Opposition Members has made clear. Alternative control methods would be used more frequently. To ban hunting—I look at the hon. Member for West Ham as I say this, because he is fond of the line about licensing cruelty—is to increase unregulated and uncontrolled killing of mammals. That is the simple truth, which the hon. Gentleman must accept.
That is a paradox, I know. The Burns report used the word "paradox" extensively. To ban hunting is to increase animal suffering. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe, for whom I usually have such respect, and whom I am glad to see in her place, cannot see that.
The second argument is that hunting is perfectly all right as it is. It is not. Monitors have filmed activities by hunts that are unacceptable and that should not be occurring under the current Independent Supervisory Authority's rules. In my constituency, hunts have frequently shown insufficient respect for the rights and freedoms of others by trespass, selfish parking and reckless behaviour. Those can be dealt with by licensing, not by a ban.
The third argument, which was deployed by my hon. Friend Mrs. Winterton in her opening speech, is that self-regulation is good enough. It is not. Even if all the codes of practice of the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting are perfect—I think that some of them are pretty good—self-regulation lacks credibility and effectiveness. It lacks credibility because it is a creature of the hunting world. The wider general public will not accept its independence. It lacks effectiveness because it polices only those who want to be policed by it. It excludes several hunts—not all hunts subscribe to ISAH—and it excludes all individual dog owners, the lurcher owners. ISAH does not regulate hunting effectively or comprehensively. It is not a sufficient answer. Only statutory regulation of the kind that we suggest can do that.
The fourth argument is that hunting must be banned because most people want it banned. We have heard that argument repeatedly, most recently from Mr. Etherington and the hon. Member for West Ham. The claim is not true. There is no longer a majority for a ban among the British general public.
Opinion poll after opinion poll, and some straw polls such as that conducted by The Sun, show 74 per cent. opposition. Some scientific polls conducted by National Opinion Polls and others show a majority in favour of keeping hunting, either on its current basis or on a regulated basis. There is no longer a majority of the public backing a ban. That fact cannot be disputed. It is demonstrably true. Even those who want a ban could not care less about the issue; they think that there are much more important things that we should be worrying about.
Incidentally, my constituency is West Ham. A MORI poll in late January showed that an overwhelming 72 per cent. of British people think that foxhunting should be illegal, 80 per cent. that deer hunting should be illegal and 81 per cent. that hare coursing should be illegal. What am I going to do with this?
I was listening to what Mr. Banks said. The latest poll, which is more recent than the MORI poll to which he alluded, came out over the weekend. It showed that only 48 per cent. of people support hunting being made a criminal offence, while 49 per cent. said that hunting should be allowed to continue—22 per cent. were in favour of it continuing in its present form and 27 per cent. supported a licensing regime. Those are the latest statistics.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend who makes my point for me.
Most opinion polls show a significant majority against the ban in one form or another. In any event, as my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke said, this House cannot be dictated to by opinion polls, whatever they say. [Laughter.] I am sorry that Labour Members find that so funny. We would be reintroducing the death penalty today rather than seeking to ban foxhunting if we had been guided by opinion polls. We must take judgments on what is best and, in doing so, be guided by all the voices that talk to us, such as vets, police officers, animal welfare academics, lawyers and all the other experts who oppose a ban, as do most serious newspapers.
That leads me to the fifth allegation that the Middle Way Group is a front for the hunting world. It is not; that is a silly attack. I have magazines attacking the Middle Way for being a front for banning hunting. The truth is that we are unpopular with both sides of the argument because we threaten their prejudices. We are not a front for anybody; we have never taken money from any organisation that wants to keep hunting going. That is simply not true. We believe that we should keep hunting going because it is in the animal welfare and human liberty interests of the nation.
I am not giving way again, I am running out of time.
The sixth allegation is that we lack credibility because we have no view on hare coursing. Frankly, I am in this debate for foxhunting—that is the sport in my constituency that drives me to the middle way position. There is a bit of hare hunting but, as far as I know, no hare coursing. I do not like hare coursing. It is not hunting as I understand it, and although most hares escape the dogs, the deaths are watched by the spectators. That puts it in a different moral category from foxhunting, where most participants never see the death of a fox. The motives are completely different.
The Middle Way Group believes that our proposals could be applied to hare coursing if the House so chose. Equally, hare coursing could be banned and our proposals applied to other, real forms of hunting. We regard that as a matter for the House, not for us, but I speak for myself when I say that I would vote for a Bill that sought to ban hare coursing and introduce the middle way for other forms of hunting with dogs.
Our proposals would crack down on illegal hare coursing, which is disliked by everyone in the House. The fines are derisory at present. Illegal hare coursing would automatically be classed as hunting without a licence; it would attract a fine of £5,000, giving the police a real incentive to enforce the law and providing a real deterrent to the illegal hare coursers. We have that unique benefit.
The seventh accusation is that the Middle Way Group is an attempt to ban hunting by the back door—the mirror image of my earlier point. We are not. It is true that we have taken on suggestions from hunting interests following the hearings that took place after the last election. Sadly, none of the campaigners for a ban would participate, which was a matter of great personal regret. However, that fear, held by many Countryside Alliance members, is misplaced.
If the Government bring forward their own middle way proposal—I have no knowledge of any deal or discussions in that respect—they must ensure that it could not be used or corrupted by a future Minister or a hunting authority improperly composed to introduce a ban through the back door.
The eighth accusation is that our proposals are expensive, clumsy and bureaucratic. I have some sympathy for those criticisms, which were made the last time these proposals came before the House. We have radically streamlined our proposals to make them less bureaucratic and costly and easier to implement. I hope that that point will commend itself to the House and that if the Minister is framing proposals along these lines he will guided by the need to be as unbureaucratic as possible.
For the Middle Way Group, our only resource has been our idea. We have had invaluable help from a couple of individuals who have stuffed envelopes for us. Not for us, however, the expensive advertising campaigns of the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and others. Not for us the immense resources of the Countryside Alliance. We were not even given a shoestring budget—we could not afford the shoestring. However, our idea is a compelling one, which is why it is winning.
We have a recipe that will improve animal welfare—uniquely, of these three options—and protect human liberty. We have been David taking on two Goliaths, and with informed opinion, the public and the media on our side, we have won. Anyone who votes for a ban tonight is voting to make animal welfare worse. To vote to ban anything for no better reason than disapproval is the route to tyranny.
I gently remind Mr. Luff that after negotiating Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus and his men were confronted by the sirens. The sirens, he may recall, were beautiful and sang beautifully but were surrounded by piles of bones from previous travellers—the siren voices of compromise, I suggest.
I support a total ban. The middle way is essentially the same as the status quo. In fact, as has been said, it is the status quo with added bureaucracy. It would continue the acceptance in our law of human cruelty exercised to no necessary end and the acceptance of unnecessary cruelty by sentient creatures. It is ridiculous to say that the activity is cruel but if there is a chit or licence, we can put up with it. As Miss Widdecombe said in her excellent speech, hunting is either right or it is wrong, and that is what we are talking about tonight.
The House has voted overwhelmingly, twice, to bring an end to unnecessary cruelty to wild mammals. There can seldom in parliamentary history have been an issue on which a large majority of the people, almost the entire Labour party and the parliamentary Labour party have held views that are so much in tune. It is remarkable that that coincidence should not have quickly manifested itself in legislation.
No, I do not have the time.
I fully support the remarks of my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice. We already have a Bill that stood a lot of testing in Committee and there is no reason why on Thursday, or whenever, that Bill should not be re-presented to us, with the Parliament Act following thereafter.
I want briefly to address some of the arguments, such as they are, that pro-hunters adduce to defend the continuance of their diversion. I could at least respect the argument that simply went, "I like hunting animals and, even more, I like seeing them killed." There is an honesty about that, as there is in the confession "I like driving fast cars at 100 mph through city centres." Instead, we get a rag bag of quasi-moral assertions that do not bear a great deal of scrutiny.
The first argument, put by Mrs. Winterton, is about individual rights. The hunters say that Parliament has no place in interfering with their individual human rights in this matter. Of course it has. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was absolutely correct: if Parliament judges that inflicting cruelty and death on an animal for human pleasure is wrong, Parliament will, if given a chance, stop it. All legislation circumscribes individual freedoms to some degree, whether it is, at one extreme, the freedom to rape or, at another, the freedom to drive at whatever speed we wish. That is why we need Parliament, why we need governance at all—to determine these matters.
We already have laws to prevent cock fighting, bear baiting, bull baiting, badger digging and otter hunting. They all circumscribe human rights. These laws have huge public approval. The public are saying, as we are, that we need to go further and get rid of hunting wild mammals with dogs.
The second argument is that Parliament has more important things to do. Baroness Mallalieu traipsed out that argument on "Today" this morning and we have heard it a few times tonight. It does not bear a moment's examination but it is spun heavily by pro-hunting apologists and by the Conservative party. The argument presupposes that Parliament can do only one thing at a time.
Did my hon. Friend find a slight incongruity in what Mrs. Winterton said? Having argued that there were better things for Parliament to do, she then said that if she ever got back into power and there was a ban, the first thing she would do would be to legislate to reverse it?
What I said has been misrepresented. I said that the sovereignty of Parliament was the issue, and that the House can decide in the future, if it so wishes, to undo what this Parliament has done. It is a constitutional issue.
The hon. Lady makes her own argument.
The contention that Parliament can do only one thing at a time induced a letter from a constituent, who chastised me for trying to get rid of hare coursing while there was still crime on her estate. Crime is still committed on her estate, but that is like my telling her not to clean her windows because her garden needs digging. Parliament deals with dozens of issues at the same time. It is worth remembering that in the five years since Labour came to power, the House of Commons has spent only three days discussing hunting, although 25 of us have spent rather more hours in Committee. I shudder to think how many days we have spent discussing crime, health and the other big issues of the day. Moreover, the parliamentary timetable is hardly overstretched at present, thanks to the timetabling, of which I heartily approve.
The third argument used is that these are country matters, as Hamlet might have put it. The debate on hunting has successfully been elevated by pro-hunters into a bogus country versus city stand-off—I give them credit for that—whereas polls consistently show a high level of anti-hunting feeling among rural as well as urban citizens. In the letter that Mr. Gummer helpfully put around today, he says that this issue concerns
"very large numbers in the towns".
I have no means of knowing how many active hunt supporters are urban dwellers who are out for some jolly fun in the countryside at the weekends or on their days off.
Since coming to this place in 1992, I have taken a consistent interest in ending hare coursing, partly because a major event, the Waterloo cup, takes place in my constituency, partly because the vast majority of my constituents demand that I see to it that it is ended, and partly because it is in my view the most horrible of all blood sports. It is a spectator sport, and Mr. Luff described it perfectly. Hares are torn to bits. They are not pests, but that is done to appease a peculiar lust among a largely urban audience for the Waterloo cup. The question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle was never answered. If coursing is done just to turn the hares and to score points, why are the greyhounds not muzzled? The answer to that question never came.
In recent years, it has been suggested in pro-hunting circles that hare coursing could be offered as a sacrifice to save other blood sports. The spin since last week, which has been confirmed tonight, suggested the same thing, but added stag hunting as another sacrifice. It has been put to me, even by friends, that I should accept that to ensure the end of hare coursing. That is not good enough, and it is not logical. The same cruelty is involved in all blood sports: the cruelty of human intention and the cruelty experienced by the hunted and attacked mammal.
All hunting of wild mammals with dogs is unacceptable to me and, I believe, to most of my fellow citizens. The killing of an animal is justifiable only if it is done for food or to protect people, other creatures, property or crops. If we have to kill animals, it is incumbent on us to do it as humanely as possible. Killing animals for pleasure is little short of sub-human.
I began with a comment on human rights, and I shall end with a variant on the same theme. What makes hunt supporters assume that they have the right to do what they wish to animals, and to kill them by whatever means they fancy? Those mammals do not belong to the hunters. If they belong to anyone, it is to all of us: to the community as a whole; to the many, not to the few. They certainly do not belong to the tiny minority who want to destroy them vicariously with dogs.
In view of the fact that many points have already been made, I shall not gallop too heavily over the ground that has been covered. Knowing the paranoia in the House about declaring an interest, I shall begin by declaring that in my youth, when I was younger, fitter, stronger and faster, I went on the odd hunt, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a good burn up across the countryside, and we went over the odd fence and hedge. Catching the fox was secondary: it was just a good day out, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A cost-benefit analysis of hunting would show that it is remarkably inefficient and expensive. It is said that it is enjoyed by people from all walks of life, but I have to say that it leans towards the more wealthy rather than towards the poor.
I shall not take up the religious-spiritual argument of my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer, but I agree with him that there is a fairly high jealousy quotient. That is why so many Labour Members are against the activity.
As a number of hon. Members have said, hunting is a matter of the quick and the dead. The fox is either caught or it gets away: there is no halfway house. A constituent wrote to me last week arguing that I should vote against hunting and get it abolished, because a cull of foxes could be achieved by the painless, quick rifle shot. As someone who has shot in most disciplines, I can tell the House that when one is lying on one's stomach in Bisley with a sling round one's arm to hold the rifle steady, it is hard enough to hit the target on the right spot even when it is obligingly staying still. Foxes do not stay still. They move with remarkable rapidity. No shot can achieve the clean, quick painless kill.
I endorse what Kate Hoey said about other methods of killing foxes. I do not know whether any hon. Members have seen snares or poison being used. Shooting, snaring and poisoning do not measure up to the clean sport of hunting in which the fox is either dead or alive.
It is interesting that, as more and more people get to know exactly what is involved in this issue, the percentage wanting to keep hunting is going up and up. This debate has shown that certain hon. Members need to have their education broadened. Mr. Banks is not present at the moment, but he asked why hunting does not take place all year round. It is quite simple. Foxes do not know that they should not go into growing crops. If we could train them not to go into growing crops, we could hunt all year round, but farmers get upset about foxes going into growing crops, and that is why there is a hunting season. People can shoot all year round, but hunting takes place only at certain times of the year.
I must make another announcement. I have the privilege of being the joint chairman of the all-party racing and bloodstock committee. It is a position of immense influence and power, and one that I thoroughly enjoy.
There have been many comments about the wide range of associated activities that are involved in and depend on hunting. One such is point-to-point training, which is absolutely vital for national hunt rules and racing. Anyone who looked down the Cheltenham race card last week would have seen the names of many horses that came into national hunt racing through the point-to-point route. I shall not labour the point, but getting rid of hunting would mean getting rid of point-to-pointing and reducing the number of horses that take part in national hunt racing. People who suggest that drag hunting would provide an alternative are completely and utterly wrong.
We all read in the media over the weekend about the idea of introducing some form of licensing, and I see the sticky fingers of No. 10 all over those comments. I have no objection to licensing—it would be a good thing. We just heard about certain practices that are engaged in by certain of the hunts. Those practices should be banned and the law should be able to take action against the hunts that use them.
If, as I hope, we take the licensing route, the basic terms of the licence must be spelled out in primary legislation, not introduced by regulations. Right hon. and hon. Members who experienced the progress of the Child Support Agency legislation will remember that when we were asked to vote for a Bill to chase parents who were not fulfilling their obligations towards their children we all said yes and it went through without a ripple. But when we saw the regulations that emerged and the way in which the CSA was operating I, for one, held my head between my hands. My surgery and local advice centres, like those of every other Member of Parliament, were full of people complaining about the operation of the CSA. It is much better now, but when it was first introduced it was a nightmare. I therefore hope that if the licensing route is chosen, we will see the basic terms of the licence in primary legislation or, at least, be given an idea of what it will entail, so that we can consider it when the Bill passes through the House.
The licensing route is the right one to take. Let us put this matter to bed, get it off the Floor of the House and start to concentrate on matters that are far more important to the country, such as the national health service, schools, transport and housing. Let us get on with the things that matter.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on hunting. It is the first time that I have done so, although the subject has been discussed on the Floor of the House on two previous occasions.
I give my support to all hon. Members who have spoken in favour of a total ban on hunting with dogs and reiterate the point that although there are three options for us to vote on, we really have only two choices—in favour of hunting with dogs or opposed to hunting with dogs. I do not accept that licensing or regulating hunting in any way is acceptable—the status quo may as well prevail.
I have no hunts in my constituency, but I do have foxes. I sometimes see them near my house in the early hours of the morning or near the marshes late at night when returning from Westminster to Great Yarmouth. I have also seen many foxes lying dead on the road or by the side of the road having been killed by vehicles. That saddens me, but nothing saddens me more than contemplating an animal being chased by a pack of hounds accompanied by people on horseback.
As leader of my local authority, I had the unenviable job of having to give permission for a fox to be shot by a marksman. I shall explain the circumstances. In the nesting season, Great Yarmouth has one of the largest tern colonies in the United Kingdom on an area of marram on our north beach. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds fences it off to stop people accidentally treading on a nest or frightening the birds away, and an RSPB warden oversees the area. Approximately seven years ago, the warden informed me of the destruction of a substantial number of terns' eggs by an animal. Evidence suggested that it was a fox that had been sighted more than once.
The solutions available were to trap or shoot the animal. I opposed the latter, but on further discussion it became clear that the fox was destroying a number of eggs and something had to be done urgently. No one dared suggest that a hunt should enter the area. Given the RSPB's predicament, I reluctantly gave permission for a marksman to shoot the fox. Fortunately, it never returned; perhaps it had a sixth sense.
There will always be times when we agree that a fox may have to be humanely killed. Even an animal lover like me understands that. However, I shall never understand the apparent enjoyment that the hunter derives from chasing an animal to exhaustion.
To my knowledge, there is no hare coursing in my constituency; the nearest hare coursers are the Waveney Harriers. Again, I must admit that I have not been to a hare coursing meeting, but I learned enough through talking to individuals who have witnessed the activity at first hand. I have also seen the usual video footage.
In the past century, hare numbers have declined dramatically, largely because of the advent of intensive agriculture methods. The Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales chaired by Lord Burns heard evidence for and against the practices that we are considering. It concluded that
"there is little or no need to control overall hare numbers."
Indeed, brown hares are the subject of a biodiversity action plan that aims to maintain and expand their population so that numbers double by 2010. Lord Burns also found that
"hare hunting and coursing are essentially carried out for recreational purposes."
In hare hunting, packs of beagles are used to chase hares to the point of exhaustion. The hunting season runs from September to March after some litters of leverets have been born. That means that some hunted females leave orphaned and dependent young. A single hare is chased until dogs kill it or it escapes. Hunted hares are beaten not by speed but by the stamina of dogs. The hare is worn down by a protracted chase, which provides more satisfaction for the followers, until it is simply overwhelmed by the hounds and killed.
Hunted hares are reluctant to leave familiar territory and will run in a large circle until worn down, caught and killed. The Burns inquiry concluded:
"This experience seriously compromises the welfare of the hare."
Coursing enthusiasts claim that when a hare is caught, it dies instantaneously from the bite of one dog. However, post mortem reports show that hares can die a gruesome and painful death as they are savaged by the dogs.
Those carrying out the post mortem can tell that the hare has been stretched between two animals and killed by horrendous methods.
After the 2001 Millennium cup coursing event, the RSPCA arranged for the carcases of five of the hares killed in the competition to be examined by an independent vet. After the post mortem, the vet concluded that none had died instantly from a bite. All had suffered injuries before being retrieved from the dogs. From 1977-79, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare carried out 53 post mortems on coursed hares. None had been killed by a bite to the neck and several had to be killed by the handlers when they were retrieved from the dogs.
The Burns committee commissioned research into how hares are killed during coursing. It showed that only one of 12 coursed hares was definitely killed by the dogs. Of the remaining 11, five were killed only when the picker-up arrived and broke their necks, and in six cases the cause of death was uncertain. The committee concluded:
"It is clear, moreover, that, if the dog or dogs catch the hare, they do not always kill it quickly."
I have been made aware of threats against farmers and landowners who have attempted to prevent illegal hare coursing on their properties. Resentment of the landowner's attitude has been made clear, even to the extent of physical threats. Illegal hare coursing is widely condemned, but the only difference between legal and illegal coursing is the issue of the landowner's permission—the cruelty is the same. The Hunting Bill would provide a real means for the police to address illegal coursing and would deal with the issue of permission.
Finally, I want to turn to the debate that will be held in the other place tomorrow. I understand that there will be a report to this place after debates and votes have taken place in both Houses. The Government's view will be based on those responses.
We are currently considering the second phase of House of Lords reform. The Select Committee on Public Administration, on which I serve, recently examined proposals for that reform and took evidence. Nearly everybody commented on the need to protect the pre-eminence of the House of Commons, mainly because we are accountable to our electorate, but in this instance the pre-eminence of this place is contested because of the suggestion that the views of both Houses will be taken on board.
This is the third time that we have debated the ban on hunting. Furthermore, it has been mentioned twice in the Labour manifesto. The will of the people of the country is clear; the will of the elected Chamber is clear, so let us be clear that nothing less than a programme for the abolition of hunting with dogs will be acceptable when the Leader of the House makes his statement. I hope that that will lead to the reintroduction of the Hunting Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I shall be brief.
Kate Hoey and I have a couple of things in common. She is in a minority on her side of the House, and I am in a minority on my side. I have great respect for what she said and for her right to say it. I do not share her views, although I agree with her that the House has more important things to discuss.
The House has more important animal welfare issues to discuss. Currently, the United Kingdom imports thousands of chickens, thousands of pieces of pigmeat and tonnes of veal bred throughout Europe and beyond in conditions that we would not allow in this country. That is being done to the detriment of our farming community, so when we talk in a holier than thou way about foxhunting and about animal welfare we should remember that there are priorities. I care passionately about the issue, but when it is set beside the tens of thousands of other animals that suffer and about which Parliament and the Government are doing nothing, a few hundred foxes almost pale into insignificance—almost, but not for me.
This charade tonight is a disgrace. This debate is a fig leaf, designed to cover the embarrassment of a rotten Prime Minister who has broken a promise. This Prime Minister has a tendency to blame the "last Government" for everything. Well, it was under the "last Government" that this Prime Minister promised on television that he would end the practice of hunting wild mammals with hounds. This Prime Minister has forgotten that he was also the Prime Minister in that "last Government".
The House of Commons has debated this issue under the Labour Government many times before and has made its decision plain. Let us not try to pretend—as the Minister for Rural Affairs did when he introduced the debate, in measured terms—that this is the Labour Government honouring a manifesto promise. That promise was broken by the Prime Minister in the last Parliament.
This debate is irrelevant. When we vote at 10 o'clock, most Members will vote against option 1; most Members will vote against option 2; and most Members will—as they have done before, and I will be with them—vote for a complete ban, because one cannot be a little bit pregnant. One cannot be not very cruel to foxes. One either believes that there must be a ban or that hunting is in order.
I respect the views—which I do not share—of my hon. Friends who believe that somehow the 6 per cent., 7 per cent., or, being generous, 10 per cent. of foxes killed by the hunt is a form of pest control, but it has already been pointed out that more foxes are killed on the roads. Foxes are killed in my North Thanet constituency. North Thanet does not have a hunt. The population lives on the coastal strip, but the overwhelming acreage of my constituency is rural and most of it is farmed.
There is no hunt in Thanet, nor is there a fox problem. There is no Tooting hunt, no Wandsworth hunt and no Clapham hunt, but we can see foxes on their streets at night. If we want to control vermin we should work out how to deal with that problem. The idea that foxhunting controls the fox population is arrant nonsense.
The debate is a fig leaf. It is a way of trying to get a discredited Prime Minister off the hook. Mr. Etherington said that the credibility of the Labour party is on the line. Yes, it is—because the Labour party has failed on health, failed on education, failed on transport and failed on animal welfare, on which it has delivered none of the promises it made before both the previous elections. The Government's record on animal welfare is pitiful. This issue should have been put to bed under the last Labour Government. This Government should have the guts to do the job and finish it once and for all.
This debate reminds me of what the American baseball coach said: it is déjà vu all over again. Most of us have been here before and made similar arguments. There are some new elements, however, and I shall concentrate on them. I shall briefly summarise the central case that has been discussed and then consider compromise.
Most Members would agree on some basic principles. First, we should not frivolously ban sports merely because we do not like them. For instance, I would not ban boxing. I think it a degrading sport and I am against it, but the participants consent to it so it is not appropriate to make it a criminal activity.
Secondly, most Members would agree that if a practice causes real distress to animals merely for the sake of sport, it is not frivolous to want to ban it. I refer to distress rather than to cruelty, because I do not think that most people who take part in hunts are motivated by cruelty in the sense of wishing to cause pain. They are motivated by a wish to enjoy themselves, and they accept that, as a by-product, the animals will be caused some distress. But we tie ourselves in knots if we talk about cruelty. I am interested not in the motivations of the riders but in the effect on the animals.
Thirdly, I believe that most hon. Members would accept that, if genuine distress is being inflicted, it is not right to do so merely for the sake of generating employment; otherwise a great many activities would be legal that are not legal today, and we would be horrified if they became legal.
Such as bear baiting and torture. No doubt, the manufacturers of torture equipment would be happy to supply it.
The opponents of a ban today have primarily concentrated on the argument that the alternatives would be worse. I draw their attention to three points. First, the Burns report, which we all happily cite when we agree with it, makes it clear that the Burns committee considered lamping an adequate alternative in most circumstances, with probably fewer welfare implications, and it makes an exception for uplands, where it thinks gun packs are necessary; I shall return to that issue.
Secondly, as several hon. Members have said, hunting is, in fact, only responsible for the deaths of 6, 7 or 8 per cent. of foxes. In all areas outside the Welsh uplands, hunting is not a serious contributor to the control of fox numbers, and the House will not be taken seriously if it argues otherwise; it is simply not the case. Thirdly, I note that the supporters of hunting have quietly tossed aside the arguments for coursing and stag hunting because, of course, neither hares nor stags are generally considered pests that need to be controlled. One gets the impression that, like the proverbial Cossacks being pursued by wolves, they are chucking coursing over the back of the troika in the hope of satisfying those in pursuit.
No, I had better concentrate on the time.
The bottom line for me is the chase. Some hon. Members focus particularly on the kill, which I find distressing as well. We have to accept that there will be occasions when the kill is swift and occasions when it is less swift, and it will be particularly horrible in those cases. But for every fox killed by a hunt, a number of others will be chased and caused considerable, lengthy distress. Indeed, the hunts make a point of stressing that many foxes escape, especially the healthier ones. I spoke to a supporter the other day and he said that, in 40 years of hunting, he had seen only two foxes killed. If we were trying to deal with insect pests and succeeded in deterring one wasp every 20 years, we would not feel that we were using a very effective deterrent.
No, I am sorry, but I will not.
The reality is that we are accepting something that is essentially a sport based on terror and painful deaths for animals. We hear about compromise, and I have to say that I am an inveterate compromiser. If I had been a Member of the House at the time of William Wilberforce, I might have been seriously tempted by a new deal for slaves—slavery with a human face. I can understand the temptation to split the difference, not to go too far and to find somewhere in the middle. However, there is a difficulty with the proposed compromise—either people can chase animals with dogs, or they cannot. I completely agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, and I am grateful to him for sticking the debate out this long to hear my contribution.
I had better not give way, because I have already said I would not.
By far the most sensible alternative for all hon. Members is to deal with the issue by simply reintroducing the previous Bill and finishing it in this Session. However, I have the sneaking feeling that the Minister may have a different view, and I want to give him some input on the kind of compromise that would tempt me. If the Government believe that there are areas where foxes are a serious pest—perhaps in the Welsh uplands—let them authorise gamekeepers to conduct culls when necessary. Further, if they think that it is sometimes necessary to flush out foxes with dogs in upland areas, as suggested by the Burns report, I can reluctantly accept that, as we did in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Foster.
My bottom line is this: a compromise that involves the continued existence of organised pursuit across the countryside and of causing terror and death through a chase is not a compromise. I would vote against it regardless of the number of lines on the Whip and I believe that the majority of hon. Members feel the same way. If we wish to dispose of the problem, as the Government have rightly said, ultimately we shall have to push through the same Bill as we put through last year.
Plaid Cymru did not want a free vote tonight. We hoped that our amendment would be chosen so that we could have a whipped vote on the constitutional relationship between the National Assembly and this place as regards hunting and agriculture. Although the Assembly was not granted all powers over animal health, significant powers were devolved to it to deal with agricultural matters, and it is right that it should decide the matter in Wales.
The National Assembly voted to ban hunting. It undertook its own study of the effect of the different options on Wales. I hope that whatever happens, the Minister will see fit to consult the National Assembly and consider the evidence that its Agriculture and Rural Development Committee took on hunting in Wales.
The debate has been good and some contributions have been most useful. I found myself agreeing with much of what hon. Members on both sides of the argument have said. In particular, I agreed with Miss Widdecombe when she said that it was right for the House to address and legislate on the subject if it thinks it wise to do so, although the idea of whether something is wise raises problems of its own.
I also feel strongly that we are discussing a compromise. Not even the ban in the previous Bill would have led to the complete cessation of the killing of wild mammals. It simply dealt with killing wild mammals in certain way. Rats, for example, were not included. I do not know what the difference is between Basil Brush and Roland Rat, but the Bill certainly made such a distinction.
I also think that the timing is nakedly cynical. The Government are in trouble, whether it is Tony Blair cosying up to Italian fascists in Barcelona—
So whether it is that problem or the Prime Minister's relationship with Mr. Mittal, the purpose of the Bill is to reignite the socialism on the Labour Benches. They are socialist, red in tooth and claw, and nothing else is behind the Bill's timing. I know that Mr. Prentice wants it to go through no matter what, but he must recognise that that is why it has been introduced now.
In the Animal Health Bill the Government created massive powers to slaughter animals because they were not prepared to face the reality of vaccinating against foot and mouth, so it ill behoves them and those Back Benchers who supported them—I certainly did not—to talk about animal cruelty and animal slaughter. For me there are only two absolute positions: either we accept a vegan's point of view and reject the use of animals for human purposes, or we accept that we use, eat and conserve animals, both wild and domesticated. I am firmly in the second camp and I have only to look at all right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber to know that the vast majority are also in that camp. I know that not from their faces or speeches, but from their footwear.
The question is the degree to which we deal with the problem. There is no doubt that we will continue to kill foxes no matter what form the Bill takes. The problem is how we do that. On considering that, my first principle is that we cannot allow and legislate for gratuitous cruelty, which undeniably happens in some hunts and in some forms of shooting and fishing. However, hunting is in an anomalous position. Without licensing, the hunt can go at it and hunt in any area that it wants, including places where it would be difficult even to stage a simple party. Hunting therefore needs a licensing and regulatory scheme.
Secondly, we have to accept that the countryside is managed, and in England and Wales there is no real wilderness. The fox is the top predator in the countryside—there is no predator of the fox apart from man. In Wales, we have 5 per cent. of the population and 25 per cent. of the nation's sheep; indeed, we have 5 per cent. of the total number of sheep in Europe. The situation in Wales is different from England's, and that has been recognised in the Burns report and in the comments of Dr. Palmer.
The Burns report found that terriers and hounds were involved in at least 70 per cent. of fox culling in Wales, which is very different from the 7 or 8 per cent. quoted by other hon. Members. The report concluded that in areas dependent on sheep rearing and game management there is no real alternative to using dogs for flushing out. The topography and afforestation of upland Wales mean that that needs to be taken into consideration.
The third principle is that we must legislate equitably. This is a central moral question about our approach to animal welfare in the House. Why should the hunting of foxes be banned, but not the hunting of rats, or shooting, fishing, vivisection and slaughter? There are moral gradations here and no moral absolutes. Of course, it is for the House to gauge where that moral decision lies, and we must do so in consultation with our electorate. However, I would argue strongly that it is hypocritical to say that foxhunting with hounds is in some way morally less acceptable than shooting, fishing or hunting other animals with dogs.
There is no moral gradation there, so we must ask why people are so upset about hunting foxes with hounds. If it does not stem from a class mistake—certainly in the Welsh context—I do not know where it comes from. I accept that there are Members who firmly oppose the killing of animals in the wild, full stop. However, the vast majority of Members are motivated by other thoughts, and there is no moral certainty in that.
There is, however, public distrust and disquiet about practices such as hare coursing. I am open-minded, but I cannot see an ecological or conservationist reason for hare coursing. I have similar feelings about stag hunting, although there may be a conservationist argument to be made. Certainly, there is an ecological reason to catch mink in the way that we hunt foxes.
There is disquiet also about aspects of hunting. Huw Irranca–Davies is a new Member of the House, but I understand that his position on this matter has not changed since he stood as a candidate in Brecon and Radnor, and he is to be congratulated on that. There are aspects of hunting that we need to address in legislation. It is not right that animal cruelty perpetrated by hunts should be accepted under the law as it stands. We have to bring those practices within the ambit of the law.
For me, there are two unresolved issues. We have to ensure that matters of welfare and any cruelty practised by hunts are examined openly, and that there is accountability for them. In my experience, the independent authority on hunting is not sufficiently powerful or interested to deal with the matter. We need a supervisory authority on hunting to be set up on a statutory footing.
The second unresolved issue is conservation. I have heard nothing yet that convinces me that, in upland areas at least, hunting can be replaced by equally useful tools. I am open-minded about that too, but I have not been convinced.
The social aspect of hunting is important and cannot be ignored. For me, however, it is not in itself sufficient to justify the continuation of hunting. It has to be considered alongside conservation and welfare aspects. Nevertheless, the Government, who are responsible for the countryside as well as the towns, should remember that, post foot and mouth, the hunting fraternity, in all its manifestations, provides an essential social glue.
In conclusion, I think that the killing of animals and cruelty to them merely for sport are not justifiable. The killing of animals for human use, with safeguards that change from generation to generation and on which this House decides, is acceptable, as long as those decisions are made openly and in consultation with the electorate. Finally, it is acceptable to kill or control wild animals for the maintenance of the countryside and its population and for reasons of biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. In that context, the continuation of hunting with hounds under a statutory licensed authority is acceptable to me and, I think, to the majority of my electorate.
Hunting should therefore be allowed: first, if it can be shown that the fox population needs to be controlled; secondly, if it can be shown that the countryside environment is maintained or improved by that method; thirdly, if deliberate acts of cruelty or interference in the hunt are outlawed. Those are the three principles that should underpin any future hunting in this country, and they must be achieved by a statutory hunting authority.
I shall make a few brief comments on hunting with dogs—although when the Government announced that we would have three votes this evening, I thought that perhaps we did not need a debate at all, but could go straight to the votes, because I shall be surprised if, at the end of the debate, any hon. Members have changed their views since they came into the Chamber. Nevertheless, as we have this opportunity it is important to say what we feel on the subject.
I want to talk about three issues—the effectiveness and welfare aspects of hunting with dogs; public opinion and its merits or otherwise; and the liberty argument that several hon. Members have mentioned. I was delighted to listen earlier in the debate to Mr. Gale, whom I followed as chair of the all-party animal welfare group. As he said, there are lots of other animal welfare issues for us to get stuck into, so I hope that the Government will put this matter behind us, so that the Members in all parts of the House who share a great interest in animal welfare can begin to consider some of those other issues.
I must take up one small issue with the hon. Gentleman, however, because he said that the Government had done nothing for animal welfare since they came to power. It was the late Alan Clark who said that the Labour Government had done more for animal welfare in their first 18 months in office than the Conservative Government had done in 18 years, and I rest my case on his words, not mine. None the less, there is much more to be done.
I live in, and represent, the countryside. I have spoken to many people in my constituency about the rights and wrongs of hunting with dogs and the necessity, or otherwise, of a ban. We have heard it said tonight that hunting is a seasonal activity, and many hon. Members, particularly if they are in favour of hunting, have said that it is the lesser of the evils—that foxes have to be killed somehow, and all the other methods are worse than hunting.
I do not agree, partly because I have seen many people who work in and manage the countryside and look after the stewardship of various species, and in my experience most people who use other methods do not act out of cruelty; they have an interest in protecting and enhancing the countryside that we all enjoy and love.
I think that everybody has acknowledged that, in controlling foxes, hunting is hardly used as a method at all. To say that other ways of killing foxes, such as shooting, are crueller is to accuse all those people who work in the countryside of being more cruel than they need to be. In all the time that I have lived in and represented the countryside, I have seen no evidence that those people have that view.
The hon. Gentleman will, of course, accept what Burns said—that in some parts of the United Kingdom hunting is regarded as the most effective means of controlling fox numbers. He has already heard from my hon. Friend Mr. Thomas that although the proportion might be 6 per cent. in the United Kingdom as a whole, hunting accounts for 60 to 70 per cent. of the control methods in areas such as ours.
There are issues involving gun packs and flushing out that I would be the first to acknowledge; indeed, I am on record as saying that in the past. However, in general terms it is on the record that shooting is used more by the people who work in the countryside—and they do not do it because they want to be cruel.
The only person who has offered an argument against that is Mr. Page, who rightly pointed out that hunting with dogs is seasonal because at certain times of the year hunts cannot go through the growing crops. He then rather gave that argument away by saying that although people can hunt with dogs only in certain seasons, they can shoot all the year round.
If the point at issue were cruelty, logic would say that people had to hunt with dogs in the appropriate season, and would be allowed to shoot only when it was not possible to hunt with dogs. However, that is not the arrangement—because the alternatives are not more cruel. I once visited an RSPCA hospital in Norfolk. I spoke to the vets working there, and asked them how many times they had had to treat a fox that had been brought in with a shooting injury. The answer from a vet who had worked there for many years was, "Not once." When I asked him why, he said, "You can take it from me that when the fox is shot in the countryside by somebody trained, it is dead." Hon. Members shake their heads, but I return to my initial point: if they are saying that that is not true, they are accusing people who live and work in the countryside, and who manage it, of engaging in more cruelty than is necessary to do their job. I simply say that, in my experience, I have not seen that.
I am still a Front-Bench spokesman, but not on this occasion. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise the fallacy of his argument about foxes being taken into animal hospitals? The simple fact is that if a fox has been wounded with a gun, a rifle or a shotgun, it will not be readily visible for somebody to pick up and take in. It will either go to ground or hide under brambles or whatever, where it will lie until it dies, probably of gangrene. It will not be found in a place where someone will pick it up and take it to be treated.
I accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman who is nearly on the Front Bench tonight—and who, I understand, usually still is—but that would also apply to lots of other animals that get injured in the countryside. However, one would think that, perhaps once in those many years, someone at that RSPCA hospital would have come across a fox in that situation. The simple truth is that no one ever has. I therefore do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument.
Furthermore, I do not accept the argument that dogs kill a mammal in the most humane way—the single nip on the back of the neck argument. Every single year—I accept that this is not the intention of those who hunt—there are instances of hunts attacking other prey or quarry. It might be people walking the dog—[Hon. Members: "No, they don't."] Opposition Members are saying that they do not, but I can give them as many examples as they like of domestic pets that have had to be taken to the vet because they have been attacked by a hunt. As a result, those animals have had to be treated. There are two remarkable things about that. First, their injuries do not tend to be in the neck area—they tend to be in the hind legs or the underbelly. Secondly—we should remember that the hunt has to separate the dogs from the quarry—they are still alive. If the hunt is such a wonderful, quick way of killing mammals, why do we find, every year, examples of animals that survive the process and can be treated and returned to their owners? It is complete rubbish.
A lot has been said about public opinion this evening. I do not believe, like many Opposition Members, that Governments should legislate purely on the basis of opinion polls. What is remarkable, however, is that public opinion hardly moves. I suspect that we shall see a similar lack of movement in this place this evening. When my hon. Friend Mr. Foster—who is in his place now—introduced his private Member's Bill in 1997, a MORI poll showed that 71 per cent. of the electorate wanted hunting with dogs to be banned. The latest poll shows that 72 per cent. of the population want a ban. There is very little change in that. Similarly, a recent NOP poll showed the figure as 67 per cent. I understand that Opposition Members are quoting a telephone poll in The Sun, which shows 76 per cent.
I have not seen a single poll that has reached that result in which the question has not been geared one way. When the question is open, there is a clear result in favour of a ban. Just before the last general election, a phone poll found that 80 per cent. of people were going to vote Conservative, but that did not happen in reality.
As my hon. Friend says, the Opposition believed that as well. So we must therefore be cautious about polls that are unbalanced.
I shall finish my speech by considering the issue of liberty. I spoke in the previous debate on this subject when I told the House that I had attended the New Forest drag hunt. When I got there, like many other people, I was subjected to a chap shoving a camera in my face. He took photographs of me and everyone else who attended the hunt. When I asked the people who had converted the old New Forest hunt into a drag hunt why that was happening, I was told, "They are taking photographs to show around the pub tonight so that everyone can see who is letting the side down." That is an issue of liberty.
I also referred to the hunt that came through the playground of a school and to a village in Essex where the villagers had held a poll establishing that they did not want it. The hunt, however, continued to go through the village and, when the leader of the hunt was questioned by the press, he asked, "What's that got to do with the people of the village? Why have they got any say?" That is the sort of libertarian issue the debate is all about. It is not about people's right to hunt, because one cannot control a hunt. It will follow the quarry and go wherever the quarry goes. Because of that, other people's liberty is affected.
Those who take a libertarian view about how people live in the countryside should vote for a ban. That is the only way of achieving their aim. The other proposals are a cop-out and should be defeated in the Lobbies, as I am confident they will be this evening.
I have listened to contributions from both sides and, unlike one speaker, I do not think that this has been a particularly good debate. I have been saddened by the superficiality of the arguments made—and not just by those who want to ban hunting.
Mr. Cawsey clearly does not understand hunting. I accept that everyone is entitled to reach their own conclusions, but it was clear from his speech that he does not know very much about hunting. It behoves hon. Members to acquaint themselves with all the facts, as Kate Hoey did by going to see the Thurlow hunt. I do not know whether it met in my constituency or one of the neighbouring ones, but I would have been happy for her to visit my constituency. That was an example of someone trying to find out what is going on.
When Mr. Wright said that all his information about coursing came from the Waveney Harriers, he underlined my point about ignorance. Harriers on horseback hunt hares with packs of hounds.
As a matter of clarification, I never said that I received all my information from the Waveney Harriers. I received it from several other individuals who had been involved in hare coursing. I also received information from video footage.
If I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, I shall, of course, withdraw my remarks. However, I urge him to read Hansard, because that was not the impression that he gave to me or to any of my hon. Friends.
Some of the arguments that have been advanced are clearly spurious. We have heard about animals being ripped to pieces. They sometimes are but, as the Burns report made clear, that is after they are dead, so that argument cannot be used against hunting. Mr. Thomas has clearly put to bed the nonsensical figure of 5 per cent. In many parts of the country, the figure is much higher than that.
I want to speak about the two central issues. The first is cruelty and the second is the rights and wrongs of people participating in acts that others may perceive as cruel. The phrase
"seriously compromises the welfare of the fox" appears several times in Burns, and I suspect that Lord Burns wishes that he had not used it. It has been so misquoted. However, he is adamant—he said this in the debate in the other place—that the phrase should not be taken to imply that hunting is cruel; and, nor for that matter, should it be taken to mean that hunting is not cruel. It was not a comment on the cruelty of hunting, even though some people have proclaimed that it should be seen as such.
Does the animal that is pursued feel distress during the chase part of the hunt? There is no doubt that there is physical distress or exhaustion, but there is a big question mark as to whether that is over and above that which occurs regularly in nature. When Professor Bateson produced a report on deer hunting, his peers who examined it quickly took issue with his conclusions. Even he has backed away from the finding in the report.
A further issue is whether pursuit causes the animal any mental distress. There is no evidence either way, but it is wrong of people to adopt the anthropomorphic approach and say, "Well, how would you like it?" Animals do not have the same perceptions, sense of reasoning and, perhaps, the premonition of pain or death as humans; there is no evidence whatever that that is the case. Indeed, if they had all those abilities, they would no longer be the animals that they are. Anyone who knows about animals—anyone who keeps dogs or other pets—knows that an animal does not have any conception from its experience of something of what will happen next. A dog is trained by repetition; most animals are taught by being trained repetitively, which is how they learn the consequences of individual actions.
The process of death may sound like a harsh term, but it is the only way I can describe it. In stag hunting, the process of death is by shooting, so death is instant and not drawn-out; the same is true of hinds. A number of Members have spoken about coursing; my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier was rightly reported as saying that the objective is not to catch the hare; coursing is a test between two greyhounds. Only one in seven or eight hares is caught, but I am the first to accept that when a hare is caught, it is a distressing sight, and obviously dreadful for the hare. The question of muzzling was raised; I, too, have asked why the hounds cannot be muzzled. I have been told that hares are fragile animals; trials with muzzling in Ireland have shown that if hounds cannot catch the hare, they bang it hard with their muzzles; the hare suffers internal haemorrhaging, goes away and still dies. That is the reason I have been given for muzzling being unacceptable.
With mink, of course, there is a huge size difference; for them, death is instant. Foxhunting, however, dominates the debate; death, according to Burns and every other study, if not instantaneous, takes only a few seconds. There is clear evidence that alternatives are equally likely or, in some cases, more likely, to cause a lot of pain in the process of death.
Another issue is whether people enjoy what is described as inflicting cruelty. If that were so, a lot of people following hunts would be extremely disappointed. Dr. Palmer spoke about someone seeing only two foxes killed in 40 years of hunting, and took that to mean that only two had been killed. I suspect, however, that he is wrong; few people following a hunt see the kill. The field is usually a couple of hundred yards or more behind, and the only person up with the hounds is the huntsman. Anybody who goes hunting to enjoy the spectacle of a fox being killed by hounds will be sorely disappointed. The issue is not relevant to stag hunting, as the animals are shot; with hare coursing, inflicting cruelty is not the purpose.
If there is an argument about cruelty, fishing must come into the frame. I know that this is not a debate about fishing, so I shall not test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but there is ample evidence that fish feel pain and respond to it. A report prepared for the RSPCA makes the point that
"it can be argued that the pain fish feel as a result of injury is likely to be just as important in their own way as human pain is to humans."
I am afraid that my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe was plain wrong; the vast majority of people who fish do not do so for food. In coarse fishing, with the exception of a few pike and eels, almost all fish are returned to the water. Given the water most of them come from, frankly no one would want to eat them anyway. In game fishing, catches of trout and salmon are consumed, but the bulk of fish is put back in the water. I would argue strongly that that is just as cruel as any form of hunting with dogs, if not more so, as there is no aim of control.
The debate has dealt with many issues, but I hope that those hon. Members who are prepared to stop and think for a moment before they walk into the Lobby in a few minutes' time will consider the consequences of passing legislation that would criminalise a small minority that is as significant as many others in this country. Every minority has a right to be heard and, wherever possible, understood. Such legislation would not lead to a net reduction in pain or distress to animals; in many ways, a great deal of inconvenience and disruption would be caused to individual lives.
The issue is: should this House make a moral judgment on whether it is right for people to enjoy what some perceive as inflicting pain on animals? I believe that that judgment should be made by individuals, according to what is right for their soul. It is not a judgment for this House, and that is why I shall resist—as I have always done—any attempt by it to stop people hunting with hounds.
In the past few years, the paper by Professor Bateson and Dr. Bradshaw—entitled "Physiological effects of hunting red deer"—has been a significant feature in debates in this place, in Committee and elsewhere on hunting with dogs. Following its publication, vitriolic attacks were made on Professor Bateson. Accusations were made concerning his competence, integrity and powers of manipulation; he was even accused of slanting his report of April 1997, thereby precipitating the National Trust's decision to ban stag hunting on its land. However, after taking evidence from his opponents, it reaffirmed that decision. After listening to both sides of the argument, the Forestry Commission independently reached the same conclusion.
In his letter to me last week, Patrick Bateson—who is still alive and well and has not recanted—said that, despite attempts to discredit him, he still agrees with what he wrote in 1997. He showed that, according to the measurement of various hormones, hunting deer with hounds led to high levels of stress. If they were chased over 10 km, which is no mean distance, they had no fuel left—I shall not use technical terms—and were unable to move quickly because their muscles had gone. He pointed out that their vascular system and muscle tissue had broken down, and, interestingly, that the biochemical and physiological state of animals that had been knocked down by a car were comparable to those of deer that had been hunted over long distances. The effect on the welfare of deer was further illustrated through examining behaviour patterns during the later stages of the hunt.
A further, joint universities study on deer hunting was commissioned by the Countryside Alliance and interested parties such as stag hunts. It did not comment on the wider aspects of the behaviour of deer, but it considered all the biochemical factors. There are great similarities between the two studies, and very few differences.
I am sorry, but I must move on.
However, there was a major difference between the two studies in terms of interpreting results. The authors of the latter study disagreed with Bateson, maintaining that the physiological effects of hunting are merely those of exercise, with suffering restricted to perhaps the last 20 minutes before the kill. They argue that deer are well-adapted to being hunted by hounds.
That is a narrow view of the demands placed on hunted deer, which are exhausted when they go to bay. The joint universities study likened their condition to that of an exhausted footballer, but it is many years since I have seen such a footballer. Given the size of modern squads, players are substituted before they become exhausted. None the less, such a comparison was drawn with an animal that is chased by a noisy pack of potential predators and suffers harassment from shouting human beings—we will still call them that—but we should remember that fear itself is a great factor in causing stress. A deer is hardly the same as a self-motivated athlete.
We need to consider what others have said about those two studies, and I shall quote one of the many eminent people who have reviewed them.
Sir John Krebs, who was head of the department of zoology at Oxford university, became chief executive of the National Environmental Research Council and now heads the very successful Food Standards Agency, says that the essence of the findings in both studies is that red deer show certain physiological symptoms at the end of the hunt. He says that Bateson concluded that hunting causes a greater degree of suffering than does stalking. According to the summary paper that he has looked at, the new work does not shed significant new light on that question. I could mention other people with the same opinion.
It has been argued that it is necessary to cull populations of animals. Bateson argued that the contribution of hunts to the necessary culling of red deer is small, and chasing wounded deer before killing them is not a contribution to the welfare of those injured in road accidents or entangled in fence wire. He recommended stalking, so he does recommend some degree of culling as against hunting.
The supporters of the middle way option argue that it would guarantee an improvement in animal welfare and boldly attempt to merge that point with arguments about human liberty and freedom—but we will ignore that one. Is it necessary to regulate animal populations, and will that lead to unregulated and uncontrolled killing? I have seen no published evidence showing that that will happen. It is a surmise by the proponents of that argument.
We may need to cull populations, and Bateson agreed. Burns was ambivalent on the need to control foxes or any animals. The report said that
"landowners and gamekeepers consider that it is necessary".
That is not the same as saying that it is necessary.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the Burns report where it says, two paragraphs below the bit he has just quoted, that
"in upland areas, where the fox population causes more damage to sheep-rearing and game management interests, and where there is a greater perceived need for control, fewer alternatives are available to the use of dogs"?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is no argument about the need in certain instances for some degree of culling. Bateson admits that and I agree, but the issue is how it is done and the extent of it. How many animals need to be killed to regulate a population? The urban fox studies in Bristol have shown clearly that no regulation is needed. The fox numbers go up when people feed them and down when the animals become infected with mange. The control and regulation of animal populations is done naturally. Studies from across the world show that. Territorial changes take place, with animals moving to bigger territories, or the animals' social interactions change. The animals control their own numbers.
I understand what people say about the comparison of suffering being a complex matter, and it is. Is one animal suffering for many days worse in welfare terms than many animals suffering for a few hours? We do not know how much time deer wounded by stalkers spend suffering. However, at least Bateson made an effort to tackle the problem by obtaining some measurements on which we can make a judgment.
Of course we need to make a moral judgment on whether culling is acceptable, but that will not rest only on the considerations that I have mentioned. It will also depend on the extent to which people who cull red deer knowingly inflict suffering and the extent to which the suffering inflicted by their method of culling may be minimised. Those are deep questions. In opposition to the views of some vets, about which we have heard, and the Middle Way Group, there is solid evidence that the regulation of populations of animals is controlled by a complex interaction of variables.
The Burns report did not conclude that we would see an inexorable rise in fox numbers if we stopped culling them. He did not accept that argument, although he was put under pressure to do so. There are some reasons for culling, but the arguments on how it should be done and to what extent require serious and proper debate. There can be no compromise on the issue. A total ban is what the public want and there is no evidence that the middle way will benefit the welfare of animals or help to control numbers. It is not a time for political fudges but time to listen to the public, the science and the House of Commons.
I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Paice that, in many ways, the debate is not particularly well informed. At the outset, I must declare my interest as a farmer who has hunted almost every season since the age of six and, I think, the only Member of the House to have ridden winners in point-to-points and under national hunt rules. So, I have a role to play in the debate, although which role depends on one's point of view.
There have been two important events since we last debated the matter in the House. First, the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting is up and running, so it is worth describing exactly what it does. The authority is chaired by an independent retired High Court judge, Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who has no bias and has seven independent commissioners who run the authority. All 11 hunt licensing bodies and all the hunts have signed up voluntarily to the authority, which has a considerable code of conduct, powers to fine masters a considerable sum and the ultimate power to suspend a hunt. On that basis, I recommend that the House seriously considers the supervision option.
The second important event is the foot and mouth epidemic, which was catastrophic for people in rural areas. Above all, it led to a system under which everybody who goes hunting must fill in a form to say that they have hunted. In other words, we have a de facto licensing system. Taken together, the ISAH and the licensing system imposed by foot and mouth are an effective supervisory system. Having said that, I am sure that all my constituents and all my hunts—I represent 10, at the last count, which is more than any other Member of Parliament—would consider some form of licensing enshrined in statute.
The foot and mouth crisis brought further misery on my constituents. We already know from parliamentary answers that 44,000 jobs have been lost in agriculture in the past three years, but the Burns report estimates that we will lose another 8,000 to 10,000 if we ban hunting, so anybody who votes for a ban is voting to put my constituents out of a job. [Interruption.] Those Labour Members who are laughing should be ashamed of themselves if they want to put my constituents out of a job.
In a superb speech, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague said that hunting is the glue that binds the rural areas together. He is absolutely right. Let me give two brief examples of why that is so. First, agriculture, which is already suffering, plays a good role in disposing of fallen stock. If we do not have the hunts, farmers will have to go to a great deal of trouble and expense to find someone, if there is a knackerman out there, to get rid of dead and fallen stock from the land.
That is one example of hunts performing a useful role in rural areas; the second is less tangible, although it applies to all those in urban areas who like to go out into the countryside and enjoy it. The countryside was laid out as it is by our forefathers and by many of the current generation because they like hunting and enjoying the countryside in a proper environmental situation, so hunting is the glue that binds rural areas together. Often, hunts are the first to notice that stock has escaped on to a road and report it.
As well as job losses caused by the foot and mouth crisis and the general decline in agriculture, we have suffered a decline in tourism since
Some of the ignorance of the facts of the debate centres on the alternative methods of disposing of foxes. I was brought up in the countryside. I know how to use a high-powered rifle, and I can tell the House that, unless it is skilfully used, it is very difficult, particularly at night, to kill a fox with the first shot.
In paragraph 60 of the summary and conclusions, the Burns report makes it clear that high-powered rifles can be used only in certain areas. A high-powered rifle of the sort necessary to kill a fox with one shot is lethal to a distance of well over a mile, so footpaths, buildings and, increasingly, the right to roam will restrict the areas in which such a weapon can be used. Burns says that a shotgun is not a suitable instrument for killing a fox, and anyone who has seen a fox in its lair, as I have, knows that it can suffer a slow and lingering death from shotgun wounds. Even worse, a fox that has been poisoned can go away and spend many days suffering from gangrene before it finally dies following the poisoning that has been inflicted.
I would like to address the issue of imposing criminal sanctions on people who transgress any law that we might pass. Imposing criminal sanctions on anybody is a serious matter. The resources that we have to uphold the Queen's law in this country are always going to be scarce; there is always going to be a shortage of policemen. Do we really want to use them to chase around the countryside trying to arrest otherwise law-abiding hunting people? The reason that criminal sanctions are accepted in this country is that the generality of thinking by the majority of people is that a particular crime ought to be outlawed by society. We can all identify with murder, robbery and rape attracting criminal sanctions, but to make criminal those people who otherwise want to go about their lawful business, by banning hunting, does not seem to be a very good use of scarce resources.
This country has always had a reputation for tolerance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many poets, philosophers and authors came here because they would have been guillotined or otherwise executed in the rest of Europe, merely on account of their views. We have always been tolerant of minorities, and the way in which some hon. Members are laughing and chatting instead of listening to this speech shows that they are not tolerant of minorities, and that they do not really understand the issues. I would say to those hon. Members that, before they vote for a ban, they should think about putting my constituents out of a job, make sure that they have read the Burns report and understood it, and, above all, make sure that they are tolerant of minorities. It has been said:
"We have a fantastic wealth of history and tradition in Britain. You'd be a fool to want to turn your back on our past culture and achievements. I certainly do not."
Those are the words of the Prime Minister on
I used to back a ban on hunting with dogs. I changed my view on the basis of observation, of talking to people, and of having the courage of my convictions not to try to put through the measures that I started with, but to try to win the arguments on the way that seems to be right. Far from criticising Mr. Sheerman, I think that the fact that he was honest and courageous enough to say that he has changed his mind is at the heart of a debate that relates to conscience. The general public are changing their minds. Soon, perhaps, the House of Lords will change its mind. What kind of Chamber is this, if it is not willing seriously to contemplate an alternative such as that put forward by the Middle Way Group, if that is genuinely in the interest of the welfare of the animals that we seek to help and protect?
Let us be clear—this debate is not about whether we kill foxes. All three options, including the ban option, acknowledge that it is acceptable in some circumstances to control—in other words, to kill—foxes. Even the Scottish ban makes provision for various loopholes allowing the use of dogs. So, let us be clear that this debate is about improving the welfare of wild animals in a context in which we still kill such animals. Crucially, Lord Burns accepted that point. He accepted that, in some circumstances, killing a fox with dogs was not necessarily the most cruel way of doing it. It seems strange, therefore, that so many speakers in this debate are using Burns to argue something different. We all know that an animal's welfare is compromised if it is killed. The question for all of us is whether there is such compelling evidence about this one specific method that we should criminalise the people who think that it is the most fair.
I do not support the status quo; nor do I agree with those who say that self-regulation has worked.
The hon. Gentleman will find that I am voting against it this evening. Moreover, I do not see the relevance of his point to the philosophical and practical points that I am trying to make.
I have spoken to an organisation called Protect Our Wild Animals. I am indebted to, in particular, Anita Knittel and Penny Little for the time they devoted to discussing the issue with me, although I accept that they are implacably supportive of a ban. Such cross- organisation dialogue has helped the Middle Way Group to develop its ideas.
I know that I did not convince those two people, but they gave me a series of videos illustrating unequivocally the failure of self-regulation to do away with some of the harm and damage that hunts currently cause. Dogs killed on roads, dogs dead on railway tracks, the physical intimidation of individuals monitoring hunts and many examples of trespass were all on film.
Let no one pretend that the Middle Way Group is sitting here saying that the status quo is acceptable. By the same token, however, although I understand why people support a ban—because I once did myself—I no longer believe that it will deliver the welfare benefits that we all say we want to achieve.
Let us think about the contradictions. If welfare is the key issue, why are Members focusing on a method that, on their own admission, involves only 6 per cent. of fox kills? If the welfare of the fox is the primary concern, why are they not dealing with the 94 per cent. of kills that are carried out in other ways? If we care about animal welfare we must maximise the benefits of the regulations, and we will not do that by focusing on a minority pursuit. Let us also remember that the damage done by focusing on that minority pursuit is tremendously important to certain sectors of British communities, such as the fell packs and the mid-Wales packs. Lord Burns said explicitly that in those areas it is probably the best way in which to control the fox population.
People describe the middle way as a compromise. That ignores what we are trying to do. Dr. Gibson said that it was not possible to compromise on cruelty. What an irony! As we know from the Scottish so-called ban, the ban option itself is the biggest compromise on offer. As I have said, it does not deal with the 94 per cent. of foxes killed by other methods; but, even more important, it would be forced to include various exemptions that would not be necessary in the context of regulation. That is why the Middle Way Group regards the middle way not as a compromise, but as a potential solution in all our interests.
Let me remind Members that we propose the establishment of an independent hunting authority with statutory powers to enforce a legally binding code of practice and tough penalties to ensure that it works. We want that to apply to all methods of fox control, not just one. Our proposal goes further than any other option in the Bill. [Interruption.] Shouting about it does not change the reality: the Middle Way Group has taken the issue very seriously indeed.
We also propose the appointment of inspectors—paid for by a licence fee—who could drop in unannounced on all hunts that must be licensed to ensure that the code was adhered to. Unlike a ban, the middle way does not depend on an overstretched police force to police the countryside. It would be manifestly ridiculous to imagine that it would have the necessary resources.
I ask Members to acknowledge—even if they have problems with the details of our proposals—that we have created a coherent and comprehensive policy. Not only do we seek sincerely to ensure that all wild-mammal control is regulated; we do not expect a police force to implement a policy that it does not even consider to be workable.
The idea has been tried elsewhere. There is licensing across Europe in many different ways. In Finland, for example, there is a sophisticated procedure that really works.
We have heard a lot about polls. Hon. Members will know that the Middle Way Group has consistently improved its rating in the polls on tiny resources: on five-figure investment compared with the seven or eight-figure sums that the larger organisations have invested. Mr. Cawsey cited polls. He will know not only that 47 per cent. cite regulation as acceptable, compared with 53 per cent. citing a ban as acceptable—far too close a call to justify a ban—but that 64 per cent. said that it was not an issue that we should be discussing in Parliament.
If our ideas are so weak, why have four directors of the League Against Cruel Sports decided that we have a more acceptable proposal? If our procedures are so weak, why do so many independent arbiters, including two out of three vets, think that there should be something other than a ban in the interests of animal welfare? I bet it is because they understand what a ban means and how limited its achievements would be.
There is a public mood developing—not necessarily a public mood that hon. Members want to hear. It says, "Do we really want to criminalise honest people who genuinely think they are doing the right thing and that they are not imposing cruelty?" The Middle Way Group is looking not for victories but for solutions. Long after the foxhunting debate ends in this Chamber, we will be picking up the pieces of the results in the wider community. We have not been rich, except in our idea, which seems to have gained some resonance.
We do not ask hon. Members to feel a sense of victory or defeat—quite the opposite. We ask hon. Members to think sincerely about our proposals, to accept that, whatever they think the flaws of our idea are, we have tried to reach out to people on all sides and improved our proposals on the basis of that.
The Middle Way Group proposals may not be perfect but they are a genuine attempt to move the debate forward. Again, should there be a split decision between this Chamber and the upper House, we hope that hon. Members will do what the Minister said they should do at the beginning: have a constructive and positive dialogue towards a result. If we achieve that, we will have proved that conscience votes are exactly what they say: votes based on commitment and principle, not on personalisation and emotion.
The Middle Way Group stands up to be counted in what it has put forward. I hope that in the months ahead we can achieve something significant, something humane and something that is practical and fair, and that hon. Members will find it in their hearts to think about our proposals and to vote for them in the minutes ahead.
I will be brief because hon. Members have come here this evening not to hear me but to hear the winding-up speeches and to vote in about 20 minutes.
I should declare an interest as well because I used to hunt a great deal. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton–Brown, I have ridden in point-to-points and under rules, and have had some winners, so he is not the only hon. Member who has won a race. I also own two bits of land across which the hunt comes from time to time.
I do not believe that this debate has anything to do with Labour's concern about the welfare of foxes, deer or hares. It has much more to do with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It also has quite a bit to do with Labour's concern about membership of the party. I saw a letter that was sent to Back Benchers from Millbank, which says:
"Retention of members" of the Labour party
"is our most important activity . . . make the most of legislation coming up" in the near future
"such as the free vote on hunting with dogs on March 18", so I do not think that this debate has anything to do with Labour's concern about the welfare of foxes.
As my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague said, we should be debating issues that really concern people such as health, transport, education and housing. If I were to knock on 50 doors in my constituency and asked people what the top 50 issues were, I do not believe that hunting would crop up once. People are not that concerned about it.
In the past, the opinion polls showed a majority of people in favour of banning hunting, but the results are very different when the question asked is, "Do you want to criminalise and lock up the people who go hunting?" My hon. Friend Mr. Page spoke about recent opinion polls, as did Mr. Cawsey. In an NOP Solutions poll only four days ago, 48 per cent. said that they supported hunting being made a criminal offence, and 49 per cent. said that hunting should continue. Of that 49 per cent., 22 per cent. thought that it should continue in its present form, and 27 per cent. supported licensing. In other words, 1 per cent. more were in favour of keeping hunting in one form or another, so I do not believe that there is an overwhelming demand to get rid of hunting.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Gale pointed out, there are other animal welfare issues that cause concern—issues such as experiments on animals, and welfare on farms and in slaughterhouses. Let us consider welfare on pig farms. I saw in the papers this weekend a story about the Labour Chief Whip in the Lords. On a farm that he owns, pigs were crammed illegally into tiny pens, where they had no room to turn round or lie down. Others were said to have died from heat exhaustion and related conditions. I tend to agree with Joyce d'Silva, the director of Compassion in World Farming, who said:
"I am appalled"—[Interruption.]
Joyce d'Silva said:
"I am appalled that a member of the Government allegedly was linked to the keeping of animals in illegal conditions".
We should be discussing the welfare of farm animals, not hunting.
Many hon. Members have spoken about cruelty. I agree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer, who said that there is cruelty in any form of field sport. Of course there is. There is cruelty in shooting. There is cruelty in fishing. There is particular cruelty in coarse fishing. There is cruelty in any form of killing animals. There is cruelty in slaughterhouses. We eat meat for our pleasure. We wear leather shoes for our pleasure. Any form of killing animals is cruel, but the question is how cruel it is.
I believe strongly, as a number of hon. Members have argued this evening, that if we ban hunting, foxes will suffer more and more. More foxes will be shot, snared or gassed. As we heard a number of times this evening, a fox that is shot is rarely killed cleanly. Frequently, the fox will be wounded and it will die a lingering death from gangrene.
I shall deal with the social fabric of hunting in the community. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, hunting is crucial in many areas. At a time when foot and mouth has caused devastation in the countryside, hunting may provide only a small number of jobs—perhaps 6,000, 10,000 or 14,000—but every one of those jobs is precious and deserves our concern and our interest.
If it were not for hunting, we would not have point-to-point racing. Point-to-point racing depends on hunting. If it were not for hunting, we would not have the knackerman. In my constituency, when farmers have fallen stock, or a pony that is too old and needs putting down, it is the hunt that comes along and removes that cow or sheep, or puts down that pony. If hunting goes, the knackerman goes.
Finally, we are dealing with the freedom of the individual. The Prime Minister has made a great deal of noise about tolerance in our society. We do not want any more divisions in this society, and by picking on a minority we will sow a huge amount of discontent in the countryside, a great deal of anger and many more divisions. That is why this evening I will vote firmly against a ban and if we do not win that vote, I will vote for the middle way.
I want to sum up after a very interesting debate in which there have been good contributions from Members on both sides of the House. There have been some stars—Kate Hoey was, as ever, courageous, full of common sense and had the best motives in supporting the middle way. The biggest star of all was my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, who was scintillating—a real tour de force. He reflected the view of the countryside and of Yorkshire.
Mr. Sheerman showed equal courage in changing his view and deciding not to vote for a total ban. He gave his speech amid much heckling from his own side. My right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer gave a thoughtful and philosophical speech that even preached tolerance. In contrast, my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe was as feisty as ever but her arguments would, at a stroke, have brought to an end all angling competitions, which would not be very popular.
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke repeated a point that was made many times: there is no compelling public interest in introducing a ban on hunting and, in his view, it should not be part of the criminal law. My hon. Friend Mr. Gale made his usual passionate speech. As the voice of Wales in this debate, Mr. Thomas referred to the cruelty in the Animal Health Bill and in the Government's proposals. There was a trenchant contribution from my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown, and Lembit Öpik, who is going to buy me a drink later, was as articulate as ever in promoting the middle way option.
We have heard powerfully held views on both sides of the argument—some polarised and others more reflective. Many speakers have commented on the timing of the debate, which they believe is insensitive and a distraction from more important national and animal welfare issues.
In a matter of individual judgment and conscience, there are practical difficulties, some of which were not addressed, especially by Labour Members. What will replace hunting? How will the fox population in particular be controlled, especially when they are predatory? Will gassing, poisoning or shooting be the answer? What of the wounding of animals after they have been shot and the lack of retrieval of the wounded? Is that not an issue? Is hunting not the more humane method of controlling the fox population?
I do not envy the Minister. He is in a difficult situation, but it is of the Government's making. At the end of the day, this is a class warfare issue—we saw that rear its ugly head during the debate. It is nothing to do with animal welfare. This is them against the countryside. This is class warfare on the Labour Benches, while on this side of the House the argument is freedom, freedom, freedom. 9.54 pm
I said that I hoped that the House would rise to the occasion, as it sometimes does in a difficult and contentious debate that ends in a free vote. That is difficult when an issue has been debated on many occasions, so it is to the credit of the House that the quality of debate tonight has been high.
Let us remember that the Government have stayed neutral on this issue; right hon. and hon. Members have made this a parliamentary issue that has to be resolved. The normal mechanisms of the private Member's Bill or Back-Bench amendments have not enabled Parliament to reach a conclusion. Neither the Burns report nor enabling the three campaigning groups to give legislative form to their preferred option revealed a simple way forward. There is no magic wand. This debate is the first stage of a process that rightly starts with listening to Members of this House. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they will not have wasted their time in this debate or in the Lobby.
Mr. Hague said that the Government are entitled to have a debate on hunting. Actually, it is the House that is entitled to have a debate on hunting. He made an entertaining speech, but he is clearly unaware of the Government's efforts to aid rural recovery, to support parish councils and to help the enormous success of "your countryside, you're welcome" by supporting some 50 organisations in promoting visits to the countryside and bridging the perceived divide between town and country. He is unaware of our work to implement the rural White Paper, even in a year when foot and mouth disease swept the country.
This is not a town versus country debate. It is a debate on three motions to enable all Members to exercise their individual vote.
I shall not give way; we have cut our speeches to give Members a chance to contribute.
It is nice to see tonight's turnout of Conservative Members, who are rarely present when we debate rural issues in the House. [Interruption.]
No, I shall not give way.
I reject the view of Mr. Thomas, who is a nationalist and not a supporter of devolution, that the House should abrogate its responsibility on a non-devolved issue. I was disappointed to hear the class warrior, Mrs. Winterton, allege arrogance on the part of Government in allowing time for debate. We have made it clear that education, health, transport and care for the elderly are our priorities. All MPs who want this matter to be dealt with have said time and again that it is not their most important issue, but that it needs to be brought to a conclusion. I understand that message, which was made with passion by my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman, my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Mr. Banks) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and others. My hon. Friend Dr. Palmer dealt with how things could be done and with the principle.
There were some excellent contributions, with a good deal of memorable wit and humour. If I had to choose one sentence of advice to the House, it would be from the speech of Miss Widdecombe, who said that neither side should assume that the views of the other have been reached on the basis of prejudice. She was not suggesting that we should listen to the views of others and always accept them. Conservative Members will have noticed that she made a robust contribution and argued passionately for a ban on hunting. Hers was a challenge to listen and think.
In pursuing our beliefs, we should be practical about the application of any principle. Often, when pursuing a principle, the devil is in the detail, and those whose views we dislike may say things that are worth hearing. That is why I have listened tonight to opinions on all sides of the argument. I will listen to all sides in the other place tomorrow. Of course I will have regard to the votes cast on the three motions tonight. Respect for democracy requires attention to basic arithmetic. That is the point of having a vote.
I must refute the suggestion that a deal is being done behind closed doors, or that there is to be a sell-out. I ask hon. Members to cast that notion aside, and to accept that the Government are trying to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue. That was the commitment that we made in our manifesto at the time of the election. This is an issue for Parliament, and our commitment is to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion. Having been given that responsibility, I shall do my best to ensure that the process has integrity, and that Parliament can reach a conclusion. After the two days of debate, I shall come to the House to make a statement on the way forward, and I hope that I shall carry the House with me. It is now time for Members to express their choice.