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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Another question has to do with what a natural death for foxes in the wild consists of. Some hon. Members seem to believe that elderly foxes go into retirement care homes. Life in the wild can be unpleasant, even without hunting.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Foxes do not go to retirement homes, and they are not taken to the vets to be put to sleep when they hit old age or are injured in the wild.

The Burns report makes it clear that arguments about alleged cruelty caused by hunting must be considered alongside an assessment of the alleged cruelty intrinsic to other methods of animal control. It states that


I submit that any method of control that results in death should be considered to "seriously compromise the welfare" of the animal concerned.

The report deals with other methods of control. Several of my hon. Friends have referred to lamping, which is the method that the committee appears to prefer. The inquiry reported that, in many areas of the country, lamping would be neither feasible nor safe.

The inquiry team also discussed shooting with shotguns, snaring, and trapping, and it referred in passing to the poisoning or gassing of animals. It is currently illegal to gas or poison foxes, although the Government have a gassing programme for badgers.

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Mr. Luff: The National Farmers Union sent a letter to Members of Parliament this week, in which it stated:


It is therefore wrong to regard lamping as some sort of panacea.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The inquiry concluded:


It is difficult to shoot a fox accurately without wounding it, and snares and traps may affect species other than the quarry species that landowners want to control. Most reasonable people would appreciate that other methods of control are no less cruel and inflict no less damage to animal welfare than hunting with hounds.

I would go further. I think that the Burns report's discussion of animal welfare gives too little weight to the fact that, because hunting exists, many farmers and landowners tolerate the presence on their land of foxes--and deer--in much greater numbers than they would otherwise allow. Burns acknowledged that when he concluded that a ban on deer hunting would make an alternative system for culling on Exmoor and in the Quantocks essential and urgent. He also recognised that getting agreement from local farmers and landowners to such a culling programme would probably be very difficult to achieve, and that considerable resentment would be aroused if deer hunting with hounds were to be banned.

Mr. Robathan: We hear a great deal about how much more effective and humane shooting would be. I suspect that, given my previous career, I have fired more bullets from rifles than any hon. Member currently in the Chamber. My aim was sometimes accurate, and sometimes not. What is certain is that there is no certainty that one will hit the target at which one shoots. I have also shot many animals, with mixed success. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who is rabbiting on behind me, may have missed the odd target from time to time.

Mr. Lidington: Some people who support a ban find it difficult to accept that Conservative Members who take part in various field sports, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), speak from experience about alternative forms of control.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Given what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said, does the hon. Gentleman think that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) should feel a little worried about being compared with a rabbit?

Mr. Lidington: Perhaps I should not have accepted that intervention. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman should remember that we are debating a possible ban on hunting in England and Wales. He might prefer to make representations about this matter in respect of his constituency to the Scottish Parliament.

The Government must answer a number of questions when they come to frame the Bill for inclusion in the Queen's Speech this autumn. A number of hon. Members

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have mentioned the economic impact of a ban. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out that the economic impact would be felt disproportionately in the most remote areas of England and Wales--and especially in remote upland areas, where the crisis facing agriculture is greatest, and where it is hard to see how alternative forms of employment could be provided.

Mr. Gray: I want to allay a myth that comes from the Burns committee, about which the NFU is particularly upset--the entirely false distinction between upland and lowland areas. The NFU makes it plain that, agriculturally and in terms of pest control, we should not make that distinction.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes his point. It is clear from the Burns report that the loss of jobs is a burden that would fall especially hard on the remoter upland areas, precisely because alternative employment is rare and because the interconnection between agriculture, hunting and other forms of economic activity is more intricate and delicate in those areas.

I hope that, when the Government introduce their Bill, they will say how, if at all, they plan to assist those people and parts of country that would be most hard hit if a ban were enacted by Parliament. I hope, too, that the Government will make it clear how they intend to help farmers to replace the fallen stock service that hunt kennels currently provide. On the evidence presented in the Burns report, the 200 hunts that were surveyed dealt with 336,000 carcases. Every sector of farming is facing deep recession, so it will be hard for farmers to shoulder the burden of additional charges for the disposal of fallen stock, quite apart from the animal welfare implications involved if farmers have to send injured stock long distances so that they can be disposed of humanely at a distant abattoir.

I am conscious of the fact that many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to take part in the debate.

Mr. Paterson: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Government were to provide a schedule not only of the costs of compensation and the fallen stock service, but of the estimated costs of the extra policemen and, possibly, prison space that will be required, given that resistance to such a measure will be massive?

Mr. Lidington: It would be interesting if the Home Secretary were to make available to the House as background information for our debates on the Bill the representations made to him by the Association of Chief Police Officers about the challenge that the police would face in implementing any ban. Again, attention is drawn to that point in the Burns report.

I believe that this thorough report makes no case whatever for a ban on hunting with hounds. On the contrary, I argue that running right through the report is evidence to show that hunting plays an important part in rural areas and that the harm to animal welfare of alternative methods of control would be at least as great if hunting were abolished by law. I hope that those hon. Members who have campaigned and argued for a statutory ban will not just pay lip service to the report, but will weigh its evidence and learn from its conclusions.

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10.34 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I apologise to the House because, unfortunately, I will not be able to stay for the entire debate. I have to go to Exeter to attend Labour's national policy forum, where we are forging the policies that will take us into our second term. One of those policies will not be a ban on hunting with hounds because the issue will be resolved in this Parliament. That is the reason why I have publicly congratulated my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on giving a commitment to introduce a Government Bill in November. There will be a free vote on a multi-option Bill, which will put the issue to bed at long last.

Burns has produced a good report, packed solid with facts and figures on hunting with dogs, but of course it does not touch on the ethnical dimension, which was outside the Burns committee's terms of reference. That is unfortunate because many people believe, as I do, that it is repulsive to kill animals for fun. That is what we are talking about.

Mr. Robathan rose--

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) rose--

Mr. Prentice: I do not have much time, but I shall give way.

Mr. Öpik: I shall not detain the hon. Gentleman for long. He says that it is repulsive to kill animals for fun; presumably he would include fishing and shooting in his list.


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