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Mr. Swayne: The New Forest lost its buck hounds a couple of years ago. This year, I have received a huge number of representations complaining about the intensity of the deer cull being carried out by the Forestry Commission. The buck hounds never killed many deer, but they did disperse the deer throughout the forest. Now, deer congregate in remoter parts of the forest, precisely where the Forestry Commission does not want them; as a consequence, many more have to be killed.

Mr. Caplin: I enjoy driving through the hon. Gentleman's constituency and seeing the wildlife of the New Forest, but I do not make a habit of stopping.

Next, I come to the issues relating to the rural economy, which Lord Burns addressed at some length in chapter 3. In a crucial passage, he says:

However, he says that it is possible that, in the short term, as few as 700 jobs and a proportion of about 1,500 direct equivalent jobs are supported by hunt-related activities. That is a key part of the report, whichever side of the argument one is on. The Countryside Alliance and those who hunt have advanced the economic argument forcefully for years, but now is the first time that those issues have been properly studied. Lord Burns goes on to say that there might be some long-term impact arising from a ban and that it might take seven to 10 years for diversion of activities.

I started to think about a similar example of an argument about jobs. As the Member of Parliament for a seaside town with a nearby airport and ports, I remembered the odd debate that we had just over two years ago about duty free. We were told by campaigners that 10,000 or 15,000 jobs would be put at risk by the ending of duty free, but what has happened since it was ended? There has been no impact in terms of job losses at Gatwick airport or Newhaven port or anywhere else in Sussex. Sometimes, it is fair to take accusations about job losses with a pinch of salt.

Mr. Leigh: Does the same argument apply to Rover?

Mr. Caplin: We are debating the Burns report and I am drawing out the economic arguments it contains. My

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point is that the forecast of 15,000 job losses resulting from the ending of duty free has not been realised, and Burns himself concludes that a ban would result in the loss of far fewer jobs than the Countryside Alliance has claimed, and also that they might take time to work through.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is making light of job losses, which is rather worrying for the 10,000 to 12,000 people who Lord Burns says may be involved in hunting. He lightly dismisses Rover, but think of the fuss in the House when there was the prospect of 5,000 or 6,000 jobs being lost in the west midlands. My goodness, here we face 10,000 to 12,000 jobs being lost in already deprived and remote areas of the countryside, yet the hon. Gentleman makes light of it, saying, "Look what happened in respect of duty free--there's nothing to worry about, chaps." There is a heck of a lot to worry about and there are 10,000 to 12,000 people out there worrying about it right now.

Mr. Caplin: First, I did not dismiss the issue of Rover. I have been involved in economic discussions for many years, so the hon. Gentleman is not correct. Secondly, I did not dismiss the hunting job losses--I raised them to draw out Burns's conclusion that, although there is an economic argument to be made, it is not as significant as those who have campaigned to maintain hunting--to maintain the status quo--have claimed. I am using duty free as an example. I accept that we will have to wait and see what happens following a ban, but it strikes me that the economic argument is not as significant as has been claimed.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Burns inquiry said that direct job losses would number about 700, but that other job losses would be linked to changes in horse riding habits, and that those jobs would not be lost if those habits did not change and people did not reduce the number of horses they kept? Is he also aware that, in a recent poll of horse riders, less than 1 per cent. said that they would reduce the number of horses they kept or their riding activities if hunting with dogs was banned?

Mr. Caplin: I am now worried that other colleagues have been listening at my door, because again that is precisely the point that I was about to make. Perhaps the corridor outside my office is full of colleagues listening out for the contents of my next speech.

Last week, a gentleman who holds what I consider to be sensible views on many issues told me that he was worried about a ban on hunting because of the impact it would have on point-to-point and its horses. That is a ludicrous argument, as the statistics cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) demonstrate. It would be helpful if the debate did not get side-tracked into point-to-point, shooting and fishing, which formed no part of Burns inquiry and are not on the agenda.

Mr. Paterson rose--

Mr. Caplin: I knew that that would get the hon. Gentleman on his feet.

Mr. Paterson: Only yesterday, I received a letter from the British Horseracing Board saying that point-to-point

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would be reduced by 25 per cent. in the event of a ban on hunting. The turnover of point-to-point is £22 million. There would be a significant loss which is not justified by Burns's conclusions.

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman is aware that I strongly support horse racing: we have a race course in Brighton and a dog track in Hove. However, I do not believe that point-to-point and racing would be affected by a ban.

On the question of whether drag hunting could provide a sufficient replacement for hunting with dogs, I thought that drag hunting was fox hunting without the fox. Burns does not share that view, which is fair. However, he does say that that the sport could be adapted, and that some drag hunts try to duplicate some of the typical hound work and unpredictability of fox hunting. Perhaps the masters of the drag hunt who are not in their places should consider whether that could be a possibility in the longer term.

Mr. Luff: That is such a distortion of the Burns report. Let me quote the crucial conclusion:

Mr. Caplin: I accept that, but earlier the report states:

My point is that there is an opportunity to develop drag hunting.

I welcome the idea of a Bill with options, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Home Office have proposed. I hope that when the House takes a democratic decision, there will be no interference after the House of Lords has arrived at its conclusions and the democratic will of this House has prevailed, as it should. Ultimately, every individual Member of Parliament has to make up his or her own mind on the issues. Before the general election, I told my constituents in Hove and Portslade that I would support a ban on hunting with hounds. I stood by that statement in the vote in November 1997, and the Burns report has reaffirmed my belief that imposing a ban would be right. In the autumn, it will be time for us to move on and let the House make a necessary final decision.

11.29 am

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

To some extent, my speech is a request for feedback from those who unquestionably follow such debates in Hansard. The Middle Way group hopes to act to some extent as a facilitator to those who are not comfortable either with the more traditional position of no change, or with a total ban on hunting with dogs.

Much has been said about the Middle Way group. We have been called the Trojan horse by the League Against Cruel Sports, which says that we are advocates for the status quo. Interestingly, the Countryside Alliance has accused us of being a Trojan horse for those who support a ban. I am encouraged. The Middle Way group has

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drawn succour from the fact that both sides at times have been suspicious of our motives, but here we stand. I hope that down the years people have become a little more confident that that cross-party organisation is genuinely seeking to find an accommodation that balances the concerns that all hon. Members have, and balances animal welfare considerations with human rights.

Dr. Palmer: Just to clarify, the hon. Gentleman refers to the Middle Way group quite grandly as an organisation. How many hon. Members belong to it?

Mr. Öpik: We may be small, but we are perfectly formed. Despite accusations that we have received £50,000--I think that that was the figure--from the Countryside Alliance, having done the calculation, we estimate that the entire expenditure of the Middle Way group in the roughly two years of its existence is under £3,000, including room bookings and stationery, so we are a small group. We have enough right hon. and hon. Members and Lords to constitute the organisation, but our resource is our idea. That is what we stand on, although if anyone wishes to make significant contributions to the group, no reasonable offer will be refused.

The goal of the group is straightforward. We aim to put forward proposals that, nominally, at least 80 per cent. of the British population would find reasonable and a sensible way forward. A secondary but necessary step in achieving that leads us to our second goal: to act as the facilitator in the wider debate, if we can. We would like to develop that role, if hon. Members and organisations found that helpful, and perhaps even to promote public debate and public meetings, where all sides were able to put their views forward and the public were able to judge the merit of what was said.

The principles of the Middle Way group are straightforward. First, we seek to balance animal welfare concerns with human rights. Secondly, we believe that fox numbers need to be controlled. I think that all sides agree on that point now. The question, therefore, is not, in the group's view, whether we kill foxes. The question is how best to do it.

Thirdly, we believe that there is a civil liberties issue that must be addressed. Of course it is right to be concerned about welfare of animals, but we believe that sometimes in the debate the animal welfare considerations have overridden concerns that we have had about human rights considerations.

That is a vexed issue. For example, I asked the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) whether he would also ban fishing and shooting. There is no doubt that fishing seriously compromises the welfare of the fish. Again, the hon. Gentleman did not respond to that explicitly. Our view in the Middle Way group is that there is a lack of consistency at times in how some people treat the question of hunting foxes with dogs--proposing a ban--and how they handle other sports which they have explicitly said they would not ban.

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