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Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): If one wants to ensure that there is an adequate stock of deer, of course deer management schemes are absolutely necessary--they are there to provide good quarry--but how does the right hon. Gentleman explain the fact that there are good thriving herds of deer in Scotland, where, as I understand it, there is no deer hunting?

Mr. King: The problem in Scotland is entirely different. It is partly a matter of terrain. I have stalked in

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the great open hills of Scotland. Coping with deer management in the wooded combes of Exmoor and the woods and plantations of the Quantock hills is an entirely different problem.

There has to be culling, and most of it is done by rifle, but it is not easy. This is supposed to be a joined-up government, but new legislation allows everybody to wander at will at night over heath and moorland, at the same time as the Government are actively promoting more lamping and rifle shooting at night. That is heading for a serious problem.

Mr. Banks: Oh, come on.

Mr. King: If the hon. Gentleman does not understand the problem, that betrays his ignorance.

Mr. Banks: I can tell the difference between a fox and a human being.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have had sufficient sedentary interventions now. Hon. Members who want to speak must seek to catch my eye later.

Mr. King: The key point is that the farmers, in particular the hunting farmers, feed the deer. The Forestry Commission and the National Trust have plantations and woods on the top of the Quantocks. That is where the deer lie up by day. By night, they come off the hills and down to all the 280 farms that are contiguous with the Quantocks. They graze there and in some cases do significant damage. From time to time, a non-hunting farmer comes to me to ask for a night licence to shoot, because 50 deer are standing in his crops.

The tolerance of the community has sustained the deer over the years. A lot of the farmers hunt and support the hunt. The House does not understand the gravity of the crisis and the scale of the depression in farming. The consequences of a ban could be very serious indeed for the deer.

Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point about a healthy deer population. Does he agree that Lord Burns implies a similar result with regard to foxes, saying that the healthiest populations tend to be in the areas that are most heavily hunted--the west country and the midlands--whereas in East Anglia, where the concentration is exclusively on game shooting and the gamekeepers are very active, there is an extremely unhealthy population of foxes?

Mr. King: That is a powerful point, but if my hon. Friend will excuse me, I will not get on to the subject of foxes.

Were the cruelty so great as to be unacceptable, we would have to consider whether, notwithstanding the considerations that I have outlined, the rights of a minority might have to be overridden by the power of a majority. That is why I was so interested to read Contract 7, the research contract attached to the Burns report. I significantly prefer Contract 7 to the earlier, solo version by Professor Bateson, which members of the National Trust council were given 24 hours to read before the meeting at which they decided to ban stag hunting on National Trust property.

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I did not regard that version as a fair representation of the situation and I am glad that a more measured approach, with more balanced science, was taken in the joint universities study, led by Roger Harris. That study has now been incorporated into the report, and I much prefer Bateson 2 to Bateson 1, as it puts the issues of cruelty and suffering in relation to hunting in a much more balanced context.

There are undoubtedly passions on both sides, but it must be recognised that for the deer of Devon, Exmoor and the Quantocks, a deer management strategy, incorporating hunting, has led to the survival and improvement--nay, restoration--of those wonderful herds. Now that the Burns report is available, the House has no excuse for taking a sudden and impetuous decision, based on emotion and ignorance. Ignorance is no longer possible, because the evidence is available. I hope that people will now understand the issues more clearly.

The report contains a strange phrase about seriously compromising the welfare of an animal. What does shooting do to the welfare of an animal? Shooting has its problems, hunting has its difficulties, and gassing, trapping and snaring have even more. The basis of certainty--which the majority would need to have to take away from the minority the right to pursue a legitimate activity--does not exist. The onus of proof lies on the majority, and that is the challenge. The Burns report has made it clear that that onus of proof is not achievable.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Several hon. Members rose--Before I call the next hon. Member, I recognise that many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Unless contributions are reasonably brief, several of them will be disappointed.

11.11 am

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): First, I can tell the House that I intend to be here until the bitter end today. I pay tribute to Lord Burns, who did an invaluable job in informing this important debate. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made a point about the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill that I did not understand. People want to walk through the countryside in the daytime in order to see it, so the right hon. Gentleman's point about night-time access is something of a red herring.

It is good to see several members of Standing Committee C, of which I enjoyed being a member of in 1997-98, in their places. My memories of the Committee were reawakened by reading the report of its proceedings in the past few days and by seeing the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on television yesterday. I managed to continue to disagree with almost everything he said when he was interviewed with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), except his valid point that the Burns report is now an important document that all hon. Members should consider.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on setting up the Burns Committee, on the way in which it was conducted, and on bringing the matter to the House for debate. I have exchanged correspondence with Mr. John Jackson, the chairman of the Countryside Alliance, who is also the chairman of a company in my constituency. His letter to me of 1 October 1999 states:

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which, for the benefit of the uninitiated, was during the Labour party conference there

That is clear evidence of the Countryside Alliance's preference. It wanted a public inquiry and the Home Secretary responded positively to that request, although any of us who have been involved in animal welfare for some years had some deep suspicions about the make-up of the Burns committee and what it was set up to do. However, the report allays those suspicions and I share the view that both sides of the argument appear to have reached in favour of accepting the outcome of the Burns committee.

I shall examine three key areas of the committee's report--the control of pests, the rural economy and the question of replacements for hunting, such as drag hunting. The issue of pest control is especially interesting. In the report, the committee reaches several conclusions. On page 89, it states:

It continues:

It also makes the point that cubbing

Mr. Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that Lord Burns acknowledged large regional variations? For example, in upland areas such as mid-Wales, hunting makes a more significant contribution to fox control.

Mr. Caplin: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been listening at my office door, but my next point is about the difference between lowland and upland areas, which Burns addresses on page 91.

Mr. Garnier: We had many interesting discussions in Standing Committee C, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that Lord Burns--through no fault of his own, but because of the timetable he faced--was not able to take evidence during the cub hunting season in the autumn? He was appointed in December and had to report by June, so much of the evidence that he might have taken was unavailable to him.

Mr. Caplin: Lord Burns had plenty of time to complete his inquiry and I do not sense from the report that he needed more time.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). The Burns report states:

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When we consider the role of traditional hunting as an efficient method of fox control, and put it into the context of the quotations I have cited from Burns, it is apparent that the effect of hunting is negligible in lowland areas. In upland areas, however, dogs may play an important part. While the use of terriers seriously compromises foxes' welfare, the use of dogs to flush foxes to waiting guns can be humane and effective if properly controlled.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned deer and stag management, but pest control and management can be oversold. I had hoped that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) would be here, because he could tell the House that the Isle of Wight had no foxes until they were introduced so that they could be hunted.

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