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Mr. Prentice: That is so predictable.

A couple of years ago, during the debate on the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), Polly Toynbee wrote an article entitled "Labour should go to earth on fox-hunting". She was against Labour introducing a ban, but she said:

Their best argument is that hunting is fun. Many people go hunting because they enjoy it. There is a difference of opinion on the ethical position. I think that killing a wild mammal for fun is repellant, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) disagrees with me.

Mr. Öpik rose--

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme) rose--

Mr. Prentice: I shall not give way for the moment.

The key conclusion in the Burns report is that hunting with dogs compromises the welfare of the hunted animal. It is cruel. Deadline 2000--the umbrella organisation that includes blue chip animal welfare organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals--endorses the view expressed in the Burns report that the central issue is that the killing of foxes and other animals is cruel. The formulation used in the Burns report is that the welfare of the hunted animals is "seriously compromised," which, in effect, means that it is cruel.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prentice: Not for the moment, no.

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The issue is not one of town versus country, nor of Labour versus the Conservatives. I visited the Burns website this morning and read the evidence that had been submitted to Burns from the Conservative Anti Hunt Council. I do not know whether the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), is a member, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your distinguished predecessor in the previous Parliament, Dame Janet Fookes, is a member of that council. The man who was the standard bearer in the London mayoral elections, Steven Norris--a prominent Conservative--is leading member of that council. In fact, he is a vice-president. Other Conservative luminaries are members, including the stargazer, Dr. Patrick Moore, and the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). Many Conservatives believe, as I do, that hunting is cruel and should be banned. The issue is not about Labour versus the Conservatives, nor the town versus the country; it is about cruelty and killing for fun.

Mr. Robathan rose--

Mrs. Golding: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Prentice: Not for the moment.

When I was minded to table my amendment to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, I received lots of letters from people all over the country on this issue-- 80 per cent. in favour of an outright ban and 20 per cent. very hostile.

Mr. Gray: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prentice: Not for the moment.

I received a charming letter from a shepherd, although those who believe the propaganda might think that if anyone would be hostile to people such as me it would be a shepherd--someone who cares for his flock. However, he is a

I think that it is brutalising.

There was a demonstration in Parliament square a fortnight ago when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his statement. I went out to see what was happening, and came back here to call the demonstrators a rabble. Two men positioned themselves directly behind me and from them came a constant stream of vitriol. I would not engage them in conversation nor would I move. I received a stream of abuse. Killing animals for fun and engaging in systematic cruelty brutalises people.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prentice: Not for the moment.

I have a letter here that says, "You stinking little rat." It comes from Christopher Baker of Broad Oak House, Odiham, Hampshire.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): What is his phone number?

7 Jul 2000 : Column 541

Mr. Prentice: It is 01256 702482. Mr. Baker says:

That is what we are dealing with. People feel very strongly about these things.

Mr. Gray: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prentice: Not for the moment.

Mr. Luff: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Prentice: Yes, on that point.

Mr. Luff: It should be made clear that Members on both sides of the House have been sent abusive letters on this subject. I have received some of the most upsetting correspondence that I have ever had, damning me and my family to hell for daring to propose a compromise. It is not right for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the traffic is one way.

Mr. Prentice: I do not resile from what I have said. Today, the Countryside Alliance is demonstrating outside my constituency office. Members would not necessarily wish that on my staff.

Mr. Garnier I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that rather than rehearsing some of the abusive correspondence that he has no doubt received, it would be far better for us all if he and I agreed that there should be a much more relaxed and rational debate about access and field sports, which is what we agreed while sipping champagne on a first-class aeroplane journey to Korea not long ago?

Mr. Prentice: At least the hon. and learned Gentleman did not revisit the cost of the Burns report, which is a relief.

I am concerned about the understated threat that there will be a reaction if Parliament is minded to legislate to ban cruelty and killing for fun. A correspondent got in touch to say:

To people who write such letters, I say that the House is the democratic forum of the nation. If we decide that the law is to change, people will just have to accept the fact and move on. In that respect, I shall refer to correspondence from the master of my own fox hunt in Pendle.

I do not represent an urban constituency, and in the northern part of my area there is a hunt, which runs over the border in Ribble Valley. The master wrote to me last month in measured terms, saying that were Parliament to ban hunting with hounds, that would have a devastating effect on the countryside--as if I do not live there; as if I do not hold surgeries there week in, week out; and as if I do not speak to people in the countryside. The master tells me that there would be problems in the countryside and that a ban would be an economic catastrophe. The whole thing is completely fanciful.

The master says that

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Here is the vision of "Apocalypse Now":

When I read that letter, I wondered what my reaction would have been 15 years ago had I received from the president of a miners lodge in Nottinghamshire a letter written in such terms saying that the miners would be on the march against the Thatcher Government, that a million people would descend on London and all havoc would be let loose. There would have been an incredible reaction.

To Mr. Bannister and those who think like him, including Opposition Members, I say that I am relieved that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have decided to introduce a Government Bill that will not put anyone in a corner. A multi-option Bill will accommodate the views of Liberal Democrat Members and some of my hon. Friends as well. I believe that that is the way forward and I wish the Bill well.

10.48 am

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I owe the Minister an apology. I fear that he might be a lonely man when he makes his winding-up speech, as I am afraid that I, too, am unable to stay. He faces the awful prospect of speaking to an empty House.

Mr. Leigh: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As every Member who has spoken so far has to leave the debate early, might those who will stay to the end be given precedence?

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