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Mr. Straw: I take that point, but as the right hon. Gentleman makes a partisan point, let me make one in return. I regret the fact that the report costs £32.50. We have tried to ensure that it is available, and the internet is now widely accessible, although I fully accept not in every home. We are responsible for this price, but up until the early 1980s Government documents were available cheaply because they were subsidised. The Conservative Government pushed up the real cost of Hansard by a factor of 10. I did a study on that in 1993, and I greatly regret that increase, because that was when the rot set in. I must raise this matter with my good friends in the Treasury, but I believe that Government documents should be available as cheaply as possible.
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I have in my hand Contract 7, which is the Bateson and Harris report. It is particularly relevant, and follows on from the Bateson report. I am not sure whether the Home Secretary has had a chance to read Contract 7. I would be surprised if he had, because it is a substantial, 100-page document.
I inquired about this CD ROM last night, and the Library was not too confident about how to use it, but they switched on to the Home Office website which contains the Burns report, and it was printed out, which was helpful. As my right hon. Friend said, if people are not plugged into the computer--many of my constituents on Exmoor are not computer literate--they will have no access to the report.
Mr. Straw: I shall consider whether a printed version can be made available. There is no perfect way of doing this, but Lord Burns was very concerned to ensure that the process and the product of his inquiry should be open. We have done our best to make it available using information technology. I realise that not all my constituents or those of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) are plugged into the internet or, even if they are, know how to use it, which is a difficulty for anyone over a certain age, but people have access to public libraries, which are all plugged in, and we are doing much to improve the public library system.
Right hon. and hon. Members will note from chapter 2 of the report the number of registered hunts for each type of hunting, the number of occasions on which they meet and their estimated number of followers. The inquiry was not able to quantify accurately how much hunting takes place informally, but considered that it is likely to be extensive. Though a minority pastime, hunting has a significant following.
The report found, not surprisingly, that farmers and landowners are at the heart of the activity. They benefit from pest control, and believe that they best understand the needs of the countryside. Although the inquiry was in no doubt that a few people hunt, often illegally, simply because they enjoy using their dogs to kill animals, it said that most enjoy hunting for a variety of other reasons. Some like riding horses, some like watching hounds work, and some enjoy the social life associated with it. Others appreciate the benefits that hunting brings to the rural economy.
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will touch on drag hunting, because the report says that as a result of a ban there will not be an upsurge in drag hunting: it will not change materially or experience any major increase. As a former master of drag hounds, I learned to hunt with drag hounds, not fox hounds. The argument deployed by those opposed to fox hunting that there could easily be a switch to drag hunting is totally fallacious, because drag hunting is more akin to point-to-point racing or the grand national on occasions.
The likely consequences for employment and the rural economy of a ban on hunting were a major subject of inquiry for the committee. Much of the recent debate has focused on the job losses that would result from a ban. The report acknowledges that this has been one of the main planks of the argument put forward by those who oppose a ban. As I told the House in my statement, the report concludes that
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Home Secretary realise that some of the areas in which hunting is most popular, and provides jobs, are also areas that have experienced particularly severe job losses in agriculture? Suggestions that retraining or Government packages could replace the jobs lost in hunting and related spheres cannot be taken seriously.
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman quotes the report accurately. It makes interesting distinctions between the possible effects in lowland areas and those in more remote upland areas. It also suggests that, in the long term--which it defines as seven to 10 years--although the aggregate effect in terms of job losses is likely to be very small, that aggregate would obscure effects in particular communities.
The issues of cruelty and animal welfare have been crucial to the debate, and are central to the report. Chapter 6 discusses in detail the animal issues associated with hunting and other methods of pest control. The report gives the best evidence yet about the populations of the species, and mortality rates. It estimates that about 400,000 foxes die each year, and that the fox population varies during any year from about 200,000 in the pre-breeding season to three times that number in the post-breeding season.
The committee found that, although not everyone accepts that it is necessary to manage the fox population, the great majority of land managers take that view. Culling is considered to be a substantial factor in the maintaining of a stable population. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned differences in different areas. Studies showed that, while hunting and terrier work accounted for the killing of 14 per cent. and 27 per cent. of foxes respectively in west Norfolk and the east midlands, it was as high as 70 per cent. in upland areas of Wales.
Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): The issues dealt with in the report are not of concern only to members of rural communities. In my London constituency, I have received nearly 300 letters about hunting with dogs. I have found that people throughout the country are very concerned about animal welfare issues, and want this awful practice to be banned.
Mr. Straw: I know that the issue is hotly contested, in both rural and urban areas. It is crucial for us to understand that there is not an iron curtain between town and country. The town depends on the country, and the country depends on the town. What makes up our society is a mixture of the two.
I know my hon. Friend's constituency well. It is overwhelmingly urban, but according to my recollection of many bus rides down the Southend arterial road, there are still some farms in the area. Although my constituency is very urban, it contains a large ward that is entirely in upland areas and contains mostly farms and sheep. It has only a small population. Nearly all of us have responsibilities to both town and country.
Mr. Leigh: The report suggests that a middle way may be emerging. It suggests that the areas in which hunting takes place should be restricted, and that there should be restrictions in regard to cubbing, stopping earths and terrier work. Although the authors make it clear that they have not reached a conclusion, such a middle way might appeal to many people. Does it appeal to the Home Secretary?
The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is certainly one of the options in the report. Obviously the issue arouses strong views among some people, although, while I have strong views about a wide range of issues, I have never had strong views on hunting during my time as a Member of Parliament. Others must reach their own conclusions, but I intend to wait until the options are clearly identified and then, if it is appropriate, offer the House my personal view.
One of the report's key conclusions appears in chapter 6, which deals with the assessment of the welfare of animals that are hunted. It compares hunting to all other methods of killing, and points out that it must be seen in relative terms. It states: