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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What about the miners?

Mr. Heseltine: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to ask questions about miners, let him put his questions to those who sit on the Government Front Bench. I put up with all the hypocrisy of Labour Members because I at least had the guts to tell the truth. They were--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I should be grateful if our comments this morning were confined to fox hunting.

Mr. Heseltine: The old temptation to hunt the Labour party is overwhelming. Labour Members are much easier prey than foxes, and do not run for long.

28 Nov 1997 : Column 1212

The communities that hunt are often portrayed as a privileged elite. I can tell Labour Members that the rich will not suffer particularly from the Bill. They will merely hunt in Ireland or on the continent. I should have thought that the Labour party might be a little reticent in attacking the rich. Things have changed, and it now sponges off them.

As I have said, it is not the rich who will suffer. Instead, those who live in communities within the environment that the hunt organises for social as well as conservation purposes will suffer. I am speaking of the people who go to the social events, the people who watch the hunt from their cars, the people who are part of the entire community in areas that are remote and distant. These people would not have the social cohesion that they now enjoy if it were not for the activities of the hunt.

Labour Members largely represent urban constituencies. Let them take care as they see their communities dissipated by the pressures of modern life before they destroy the cohesion of the rural countryside. How is it that a party that spends most of its life arguing about the creation of jobs can decide that, in one piece of legislation, it will decimate the jobs--[Interruption.]--of those who live in some of the more remote and fragile economies in our countryside?

It is the same old story with the left. Those who support the left take up fashionable problems until they are faced with them. When unemployment issues get in the way of their prejudices, they do not care about the consequences of unemployment. They will have to face all those who work in farriers' yards, hotels and pubs, for example, in all the areas that depend for their livelihoods upon the hunting community. They will have to explain why, in future, they will have to queue to get handouts from the new Labour windfall tax so that they might be put back in jobs that the Labour party, when in government, destroyed.

Thirdly, I oppose the Bill because it portrays a prejudice against the freedoms and rights of hundreds of years of British tradition. The people of this country have cherished those freedoms and rights, which have provided one of the most beautiful rural environments in western Europe. I am talking of a time-tested system, and the Labour party has driven the argument against it time and time again.

Everybody knows that that is the Labour party's position. The only thing that is ever good about the Labour party is when it adopts Conservative ideas. That being so, I beg the Labour party to realise that the home-bred Labour tradition of prejudice against the countryside is as disastrous as all the other nostrums about which it has changed its mind. I will oppose the Bill, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do likewise.

10.32 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on his luck, skill and courage in bringing the Bill before the House.

As a child, one of the first things that I learned about the countryside and its cruelty was when I saw a coop of hens that had been slaughtered by a fox. A little later, I saw a fox that had been caught in a trap. Some of us kids had been setting traps for rabbits. We set one trap rather badly and caught a fox. I remember seeing the suffering and horror of that fox as we got someone to

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shoot it. That left me startled and appalled. We must recognise that the countryside can be a pretty cruel place. It is important that we as human beings should not make it crueller.

I do not want to argue too much about the merits of the Bill, which have been well addressed in the debate so far and in the country. I have one thought on the issue: if hunting is the best way of controlling foxes, what are we to do about the increasing number of foxes in urban areas? It is crazy to think that we can bring the hunt into urban areas to control foxes. We must find ways in which the fox can be controlled in so far as it needs to be controlled. There are many who argue that the fox controls its own numbers according to its food supply. Nevertheless, we must find humane ways of controlling it.

I remind the House that we have a duty. A substantial debate has taken place in the country and we are now debating the issues in the Chamber. The time has come when the country must make up its mind. It is important that at the end of the debate there is a vote, and that that vote sends from Parliament a clear and decisive message that recognises the strength of feeling in the country on this issue. If the Opposition decide not to vote, I shall be prepared to be a Teller so as to ensure that the will of the House is expressed.

There is plenty of time under the procedures for a private Member's Bill for the measure before us to be fully discussed. It is important to recognise that we must discuss it effectively. There is nothing worse than Parliament rushing to legislate and legislating badly. It is important that we scrutinise the Bill carefully and effectively in Committee, including the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about hill farmers being able to flush out foxes from forested land and areas of gorse, for example. There is also the legitimate activity, which harms no one, of drag hunting, which we must ensure can continue.

I plead with the House to ensure that we get a Committee that will go into all the details and make sure that the Bill will work when implemented. When it returns to the Chamber in March, let the House give it a clear and substantial majority. We shall then have a mandate. If we have done our job properly in giving the Bill a clear majority after scrutinising it thoroughly and carefully, we must warn those in another place that they should think carefully before they defeat the will of the people as expressed so clearly during the election and in the ensuing debates and arguments. I plead with those in another place to recognise that, if we do our job properly, they should not obstruct us.

10.37 am

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): This is not a party issue, and there will be hon. Members from every political party on both sides of the argument. It presents all hon. Members with some difficulties, because of the passions that it arouses. I attended a public meeting at which the Labour candidate in my constituency said that he would put all the letters that he had received into two piles, and would vote according to which pile was the biggest. None of us can do that, because the Bill is not an opinion poll on whether hon. Members think that hunting is a good or bad thing. It is not even an opportunity to show to our constituents that we will follow the majority view. If that principle were to be followed, the hon.

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Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) would have to have a poll in his local evening newspaper about the death penalty similar to the one that he had about fox hunting.

We must judge whether we would be justified in sending people to prison for continuing to engage in fox hunting, or for allowing fox hunting to take place across their land. The House must make such a judgment when it decides to make something a crime, which is what the Bill would do. We would have to have compelling reasons.

One reason might be that it is essential that no foxes are killed in the future, which is what we decided in the case of otters. They were so perilously close to extinction that we decided that they should not be killed or pursued in any way, and that they had to be utterly protected. No one is arguing that the fox must be utterly protected. Indeed, everyone recognises that foxes will continue to be killed by other methods. The Bill provides for the flushing out of foxes so that they can be shot.

It might be argued that there is something uniquely cruel about fox hunting as a way of killing foxes. That argument is not convincing to the point of sending people to prison. We should make a comparison between a fox being killed by fox hunting, which does not always happen--indeed, foxes pursued by hounds are killed on a minority of occasions--and a fox being shot, gassed or killed by any of the methods that will be used when fox hunting ceases. The difference in cruelty is not of the order that justifies someone being sent to prison for it. It could be argued that it is often less cruel.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York) rose--

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) rose--

Mr. Beith: I want to put my argument, because we have limited time; I shall then see whether I have some time to spare.

The Bill would make common criminals of people who are engaged in an activity that has been practised for hundreds of years, and who in all other respects are regarded as responsible members of society. Hon. Members are asked to make that decision, and not to state whether they deplore, dislike or want nothing to do with hunting. They could continue to campaign against fox hunting without having to submit themselves to this test, but if they are going to send people to prison, they must ask whether fox hunting is uniquely cruel. If people are going to be sent to prison for hunting foxes, why will they not be sent to prison for fishing, shooting or any of the other activities that involve killing animals?

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