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12.59 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on his choice of subject. I particularly congratulate him on his courage in introducing a controversial Bill so early in his time in the House.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) on his maiden speech and on having the courage to make it in such a debate. His predecessor, Jack Aspinwall, was much respected on both sides of the House. I am grateful for the tribute paid to him.

Having started on that friendly note, I should like to engage in one of my favourite sports--trying to flush out the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Worcester told the House that the Prime Minister supported the Bill. I am pleased to hear that. Does that support extend to making parliamentary time available? I hope that I shall be assisted in the resolution of that query by the spokesman for the Opposition. I hope that he will help me to flush out the Prime Minister.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Spokesman for the Government.

Miss Widdecombe: That is true. It takes a lot of getting used to, and it will not last long, anyway.

On 15 April--hon. Members may recall that that was in the middle of the general election campaign--the current Prime Minister, in his then role of Leader of the Opposition, wrote to the current Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). He said:

I repeat:

    "parliamentary time will be made available".

If the House passes the Bill--or at least gives it a Second Reading, as it is unlikely to pass the Bill--I hope that the Prime Minister will honour his promise and will make

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time available, not for a measure on licensing or some other watered-down proposition, but for the measures in the Bill. We have heard a lot of talk about what the upper House will do. I want to know what the Prime Minister will do if Parliament votes--

Mr. Peter Bradley: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: No. The hon. Gentleman is not the Prime Minister.

I have a couple of concessions to make about the Bill. It may not be the most perfectly drafted Bill in the world, but it is a pretty good attempt. If it is possible for a lawyer of the eminence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) to interpret clause 5 in a different way from what was intended, we shall tidy that up in Committee. What is the Committee stage for? That is a common plea in private Members' legislation, and one that I have often made--and Labour Members have not granted it. One does not need perfection the first time, because the Committee stage is designed, elementarily, to clear up such problems.

Yes, the fox is exceptionally cruel. When it goes into a hen-house it is concerned not only with getting a good supper but with having a horrible time with the hens. Does that mean that we should take our standards from the fox? Is it proposed that, because a fox eats a couple of guinea pigs in a nasty way, the House should take its standards from the fox? I find that proposition amazing, as I have some of the other arguments advanced today.

It is argued that if we abolish hunting we will abolish jobs. If we abolish crime, we will put all the police out of work. If we abolish ill health, we will put all the nurses and doctors out of work. Does anyone seriously suggest that we must preserve at all costs crime and ill health because they keep people in jobs?

We are told that there must be consensus before we lock people up, that if there is a large body of opinion that says that something is okay, we must not lock up the practitioners. What about the legalisation of cannabis? A sizeable body of opinion, with which I am totally at odds, says that cannabis is all right. I defend to the hilt society's right to lock up the purveyors of cannabis. I defend also to the hilt--although this will not be so acceptable to Labour Members--our right to lock up people who did not pay their poll tax when it was a lawfully levied tax.

If this democratically elected House decides that hunting is against the law, it is our right to exact penalties against those who fight the law. We will be penalising not the fact that they like to hunt but the fact that they break the law. I do not believe that the sort of people who tell me that they want to carry on hunting are the sort who would wilfully break the law. There seems to be an underlying assumption that such people will go out breaking the law. Frankly, I doubt it. If Parliament changes the law, I believe that people will largely obey it and that we are entitled to take action against those who do not.

It is important to ask ourselves a simple question. Is hunting so wrong that we wish to abolish it? If it is, all else flows from that. We do not need to be concerned about jobs or liberties to do wrong; we need only ask whether it is so wrong that it should be abolished.

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My problem with hunting is not that I contest the right of farmers to practise pesticide. Hunting is a most ineffective pesticide. Its supporters have tried to have it both ways by saying that they do not kill too many foxes but also that they kill so many that it is a good pesticide. In fact, nine tenths of fox control is done by shooting, not hunting.

Hunting is not a pesticide, so we must ask what it is. It is cruelty. I am not against killing foxes or culling deer. I am against the chase, the cruelty involved in the prolonging the terror of a living, sentient being that is running for its life. They laugh at it, apparently. When the deer is running, can feel the hounds closing in and knows that its strength is not going to last, it is uproariously funny. If it is so funny, why do not those who favour hunting take a trip to Kenya and stand unprotected in a lion reserve and see if they enjoy the hunt? I admit that I might enjoy watching it. Prolongation of terror is wrong. Those who practise it when there are alternatives that are already widely practised do wrong. Yes, the scenes of a hunt are splendid, so splendid that they are all over my dining room curtains, but they are colourful scenes of olde England, and in olde England, not in modern Britain, they belong. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should not clap after a speech. It is not necessary.

1.9 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hesitate to make my maiden speech after that magnificent speech by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), but I thank you for calling me to speak. I am very pleased to speak during this important debate, because I am a lifelong and passionate opponent of hunting. I wish to express my strong support for the Bill.

It is customary in a maiden speech to mention one's predecessors. The seat of Luton, North has changed in name and shape on several occasions in recent times and has been represented by several notable Members, two of whom are still hon. Members of the House.

John Carlisle retired from Parliament before the May election, having represented Luton, North and Luton, West for 18 years. Often controversial and outspoken, he was a good constituency Member, who spoke his mind in the House and elsewhere. However, we held opposite views on almost every issue.

Suffice it to say that I was a founder member of the Luton Anti-apartheid Group, that I supported the idea of the all-woman shortlist to increase the number of women Members and that I welcomed the ban on handguns. Older hon. Members will need no reminding that John Carlisle had very different opinions on such matters.

Those differences of view seemed to be of little consequence to at least one local voter who spoke to my son as he emerged from the polling station on 1 May. He said that he had come to vote for "that John Carlisle" but that, as he was not standing, he had voted for me instead. For all our political differences, John Carlisle was very charming to me and I wish him well in his retirement from the House.

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My predecessor was my hon. Friend the current hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), a personal friend for 26 years whom I served as both constituency party chair and campaign organiser in three general elections. I am delighted that I am now able to join him in the House as a colleague as well as a friend. My hon. Friend is a forceful and compelling speaker, a doughty champion of many causes over the years and a strong civil libertarian.

Before 1974, most of what is now Luton, North was in the seat of South Bedfordshire, and its Member was the current hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel). I congratulate him on his appointment to the Opposition Front-Bench team and I am extremely pleased that he is in the Chamber on the occasion of my maiden speech. He took the seat in 1970 from Gwilym Roberts, another personal friend for whom I have the warmest regard. If I have a mentor in national politics, it is Gwilym Roberts, who first suggested in 1971 that I might seek to stand for Parliament. It has taken 26 years for his encouragement to bear fruit, but he was one of the first to congratulate me after 1 May.

Luton, North has a number of distinctions, including that of being the smallest constituency in the eastern region. It comprises many good homes, fine parks, excellent schools and colleges. The Luton and Dunstable hospital not only serves my constituents but is strategically placed next to the M1 and provides a vital accident and emergency centre. Luton, North borders much pleasant Bedfordshire countryside--especially the attractive Warden hills--but itself includes no rural areas.

Luton, North is very much a 20th-century constituency. Before 1930, it was mainly farmland, and the names of its major estates--Lewsey farm, Marsh farm and Bramingham farm--betray their recent rural past. Former hamlets and villages such as Challney, Leagrave and Limbury are now substantial residential areas.

There is much of interest in the physical geography of Luton, North. It provides the source of the River Lea at Five Springs near Sundon Park, and the northern edge of the constituency marks the watershed between the Thames basin and the Great Ouse.

Remains have been found of early settlements, from the stone age right up to Saxon times. The River Lea in the constituency formed one boundary of the Danelaw, and the name Luton derives from the old Norse name meaning simply the "town of the Lea". The constituency is crossed east-west by the ancient Icknield way, and north-south by the modern M1.

However, the most significant feature of the constituency is its people. There are many old Lutonians, but many thousands more have come to Luton from other parts. These include Ireland and the West Indies, India and Pakistan, and especially Kashmir. They include Bangladesh, the continent of Europe, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Many Scots, Welsh and northern English people have also made their homes in the town. We are a fascinating mixture in Luton, and if there is one word to describe us all it is "friendly". We enjoy our cultural variety and get along well with each other. I am pleased that my children have grown up in such a diverse and interesting community. After 28 years, Luton is definitely home as well as the town that I help to represent in the House.

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Luton built its reputation on hatting and still makes hats, but for much of the century the town has beena centre for large-scale manufacturing, with SKF, Electrolux and Vauxhall Motors, among other companies. Since 1979, many thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost to the town. I have spent the past few weeks trying to prevent the final closure of the Electrolux plant in my constituency. On the positive side, London Luton airport is growing rapidly and is a burgeoning success for the town. The local economy has diversified, but I still believe that a strong manufacturing sector is vital for Luton and for Britain. I do not accept that gearing our whole economy to the financial services sector and the City of London promises a viable future for our country.

Luton has a fine new university and its thousands of students have brought new life to the town. For four years, I chaired the governing body of its previous incarnation, Luton college of higher education, and in 1993 I was delighted to be made an honorary fellow of the university. Barnfield college is one of the largest and best further education institutions in the country with a superb, newly opened technology centre. The young people of Luton are especially fortunate to have access to a splendid sixth form college whose dedicated staff provide a quality of post-16 education that is second to none. Their success goes on year after year and I am proud to be associated with it as a college governor.

Luton has a good Labour council that does its best to serve local people, sometimes in difficult circumstances. The town offers a variety of cultural and sporting activities, and we play hard and enjoy ourselves. Our football team, the Hatters, has seen great days. They will come again, especially once we have our new multi-purpose stadium.

At its heart, however, Luton is about work. Tens of thousands of people came to Luton for jobs, to make a living and to give their families a decent life. That is why I regard it as my job to campaign above all for employment in the town--for new jobs to replace those lost in the past two decades. Unemployment has blighted the lives of many of our people in recent years and I want nothing less than to bring full employment back to Luton. Some of those new jobs will be found in new industries, but many jobs of the future will be found in the services, including the public services. Luton and Dunstable hospital, local mental health services, social services, education and leisure services should, in the longer term, seek to employ more people so that we can have smaller classes in schools, better care for the elderly and a wider range of health provision.

I was one of a small number of new Members who confessed to an interest in economics. Being any sort of economist is not an admission that one makes lightly. The 20th century has seen a catalogue of economic policy blunders that have had devastating social and political consequences. Defending sterling's link to gold in 1931 brought down a Labour Government and contributed to the misery of the 1930s. The exchange rate mechanism debacle also brought a surge in unemployment and led directly to the Conservatives' defeat this year.

Economic policy is often dictated by fashion, prejudice and political predisposition, but rarely by rationality or even common sense. Thus economists have earned themselves an unfortunate but justified reputation for incompetence. However, some economists get it right. They are often mocked by the political establishment and

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resented when proven later to have been correct, while the incompetents' transgressions are frequently overlooked and forgiven. I hope to make a modest contribution to the economic debate during my time in the House. I also hope to be among those whose judgment in economic matters is more accurate than fashionable. The modern fashion for neo-liberalism will bring yet more tears to the world before its gurus and their incantations are finally rejected.

For 30 years after the second world war, we achieved full employment, rapid economic growth and a welfare state based on the principle of universality. We gave hope and optimism to our children and provided security for our pensioners. In more recent decades, free market nostrums and monetarist dogma have made the world less secure and more unhappy for millions of our citizens, especially the poor. The Government have a duty to create and sustain employment for their people, to redistribute income and wealth, to promote equality and social justice, and to eliminate poverty. The free market, left to itself, will achieve none of those.

Democracy is not just about voting; it is about economic power. Abdicating power to the market undermines and devalues democracy, and gives comfort only to those for whom democracy is a threat. The House is the focal point of our democracy, and I am privileged to be a Member of it. I shall try to use my time in the House to good effect, to the benefit of my constituents and to the ends to which I have referred.

I am grateful for having been given an opportunity to speak in this debate. Britain has a proud record of campaigning for animal welfare. We can, and do, take a lead in the world on animal rights issues and against cruelty to animals, but our influence is undermined when others can point to the cruelty that we permit to continue in our country, as dogs are unleased to hunt animals to death. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on his Bill. It has my unqualified support and should be passed into law forthwith.

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