A few days ago, the Prime Minister showed how hugely in touch she is with the country’s priorities by declaring that she has “always supported fox hunting” and that she maintains a commitment to its reintroduction. Today, the Conservative manifesto promises a step backwards in reintroducing this cruel and barbaric act to parts of these islands. It has also been revealed that one of Ruth Davidson’s former colleagues, who recently resigned, is a member of a fox hunting club in Scotland and has claimed that fox hunting is part of her way of life.
An estimated 800 foxes are killed by hunts each year in Scotland, 20 per cent of which are killed by packs of hounds rather than being shot, which is in clear breach of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. The First Minister will be well aware of the huge anger and concern that exists among members of the public about the issue. Does she agree with the members of the public who are contacting all parties to demand a ban on this brutal act? Does she agree with her party leader at Westminster, who says that he totally opposes fox hunting? If she does, will the law in Scotland totally oppose fox hunting?
Before I come on to the Scottish Government’s position, I say first that it says a lot about the priorities of Theresa May and the Tories when they go out of their way to deny Parliament any say over the hugely important issues that are associated with Brexit and yet they are committed to giving Parliament a free vote on reintroducing fox hunting. If ever something said that a Government had completely the wrong priorities, I suspect that that would be it.
When David Cameron spoke about the matter previously, it raised an issue about the differences between the law in England and in Scotland. At that point, we committed to looking at loopholes in the Scottish law. As Patrick Harvie will be aware, we have had Lord Bonomy look at the matter in detail. We are now consulting on his recommendations and considering whether changes in the law are required as a result.
I understand the concerns of people who are writing to us; I have always been an opponent of fox hunting and I remain so. We need to ensure that the law in Scotland operates appropriately, and that is exactly what the process is intended to ensure.
I think that the very many people who are contacting politicians about the issue will want a clearer answer about what is proposed in Scotland. The Bonomy review was welcome, but it followed a very narrow remit defined by the Scottish Government, which specifically excluded consideration of a full ban. Indeed, his lordship said that he
“always had in my mind the notion that there must be a way of preserving” fox hunting, and he said that he was minded not to abolish fox hunting but to
“find a way of maintaining it.”—[
Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee,
28 March 2017; c 14.]
Some of the proposals might go beyond the status quo, but they would be tantamount to proposing that the Scottish Government should endorse a form of regulated fox hunting.
If the Scottish Government means to consult openly on the issue, will the First Minister confirm that the consultation will include consideration of a complete ban on mounted fox hunting in Scotland? Failing that, will she remove the exemption in the 2002 act that allows the flushing of foxes to guns, given the significant evidence that that activity is used as a decoy for traditional brutal and barbaric fox hunting?
I understand the concerns that people are expressing and I share some of them, but I think that Patrick Harvie mischaracterises the Scottish Government’s position. The exemptions in the current law were debated and agreed by this Parliament before—I think—Patrick Harvie was a member of it. In the first session of Parliament, a member’s bill was introduced and the issues were fully debated.
Concerns have been raised about what I have described as loopholes and about whether we need to tighten the law further. We have embarked on a process and Lord Bonomy has looked at the matter in detail, and we are now consulting on what he said. Given that the consultation is live, we should allow it to take its course. If Patrick Harvie wants to make a submission to that consultation—he may already have done so, in which case I apologise—he can do so and argue for us to go further than we are proposing. That submission would be considered as part of the consultation.
We should go forward with the process as that is the right thing to do, but members should be in no doubt at all that the Government opposes fox hunting. That is a position that we have long taken and which we continue to take.