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Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman is a perfectly decent fellow. I have heard him use those arguments before about fishing. Perhaps he could tell me the position of the Middle Way group with regard to angling. While he is at it, what is the position of the Middle Way group with
Mr. Öpik: I am sure that that is not an implied threat by the hon. Gentleman, who I do not believe has a gun licence, I am relieved to say. The Middle Way group's position is clear. We do not seek to stray beyond the question of fox hunting at this stage. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to ask that question, but the reason why we have restricted ourselves, for now at least, to fox hunting is not that we do not have personal views--I do have personal views, which I have privately shared with him and others; I am not worried about doing that--but that the group is limited in its resources, and the key issue facing the House at the moment is fox hunting. As we get feedback, which I hope we will do, and as the debate evolves, it may be constructive to discuss the issues relating to hare coursing, and deer and stag hunting, as the Burns inquiry does. Perhaps that is the right way forward, but in this brief speech I would not wish to go that far. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, even if he is a bit frustrated by my answer, at least acknowledges its sincerity.
The reason why I mentioned fishing is that we are concerned that there is consistency in how we handle all the issues. I have made that point; I do not wish to repeat it. It is worth bearing it in mind that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has determined that, in its judgment, fish do feel pain, so the issues that we are discussing with regard to fox hunting could be validly applied to fishing, too.
The final principle by which we operate is a belief that dialogue will improve the outcome of our debate as a whole. We work on the assumption that, if we enter a genuine dialogue, listen, and use the Lord Burns report as our biblical guide to the debate, the sum total of the legislation that we produce will make more sense and will be regarded as fair by the public, even if, at this point, there are still entrenched views on the matter.
It is worth stating that the Middle Way group was one of the first to call for an inquiry last year. We were glad when the Government were clearly thinking along the same lines. In that context the group said that we would respect and honour our commitment to take the inquiry's position as an objective input, and that therefore, even if some of the outcomes were not what we would have wished, we would use them as a starting point. On that basis, I am encouraged to hear what the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) has said. He too is illustrating that people who have had strong views on the subject are beginning to think about it in a more informed and objective fashion. I praise him--I had lots of exchanges with him on Standing Committee C--for seriously and constructively entering the debate.
The Middle Way group has looked at the Burns inquiry. There are some clear implications. I do not wish to go into those in any detail because other hon. Members will unquestionably explore them further. If the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may do so, but it is interesting to note the recognition that practice varies widely between, for example, upland and lowland areas, and that hunting with dogs is a significant form of fox control in
The Middle Way group has tried to include all that in its deliberations. I should like to lay out what we believe should be the way forward. We will make the submission to the Government in the hope that it is constructive to the debate. Any hon. Member or member of the public who wishes to examine our proposals in detail will be most welcome to contact us. We will do our best to supply the information that they need.
In one sentence, the Middle Way group's proposal is to set up a statutory independent hunting authority, known as Offox, with the power to regulate fox hunting and fox control with a series of regular--
It would have a series of inspectors who could drop in unannounced to any of the fox hunts throughout the country to ensure that standards of welfare and procedure were in line with the code of practice. The whole thing would be paid for through a licensing system. Our intention would be that it cost the taxpayer nothing.
Mr. Gray: Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that there is a curious omission from the Burns report? It talks briefly about licensing, but then says that there are no examples in this country of licensing of fox hunts, ignoring the fact that the Government themselves license 25 packs that hunt on Ministry of Defence land and 100 or so packs that hunt on Forestry Commission land. Would that not be a good exemplar to use in the possible licensing regime that he describes?
Mr. Öpik: That is the case. I interpreted Lord Burns as saying that there was no nationally established formal and statutory licensing system. As the hon. Gentleman says, however, there are local examples and the industry has made efforts at self-regulation. There are established licensing procedures in other countries, and other hon. Members may wish to expound those.
First, there are two choices on the make-up of the independent hunting authority. We could take the approach exemplified by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, in which people explicitly aligned with one or other side of the debate are appointed according to quotas that ensure a consensual way forward. If that can be done in the vexed political environment that used to exist in Northern Ireland, it can surely be done in a hunting authority.
The next point at issue concerns who would create the code of practice. We believe that the Government should provide a steer on aspects of the code such as hunting with dogs, and the many other possible ways of dispatching foxes. The details, however, should be developed by the independent hunting authority, perhaps after informal liaison with the Home Secretary.
What should the code cover? We think that it should involve all forms of hunting, including hunting with dogs, gun packs, foot packs, horse-borne hunts, snaring, lamping and other forms of fox control. It should cover the use of terriers, which has been highly contentious. It should also cover dog welfare standards and the breeding of foxes, the blocking up of earths and the use of artificial earths. The code should include guidance on seasons and on trespass and public safety. That list may not be exclusive, and we should be happy to consider other contributions to it.
Mr. Leigh: I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman advocates, which ties in with what the Burns report says. The problem, however, is that we must ask whether the other side is prepared to compromise. If we give concessions on all those matters--terrier work, artificial earths, stopping up or even agreeing restrictions on the areas hunted--will the other side be prepared to compromise? I fear not.
Mr. Öpik: If the Middle Way group had £30 million, we would put all our proposals on billboards, which would hopefully influence the other side. As it is, our only weapon is the strength of our argument. To be fair to the other side, however, my colleagues and I are beginning to detect increasing dialogue, largely prompted by the Burns report. If we are to be successful, it will be on the basis of good faith, and that is beginning to develop. Time will tell.
We believe that it would be inappropriate to tie up the police in enforcement, so inspectors should have strong powers allowing them to drop in on hunts unannounced to determine whether codes are being adhered to. Sanctions should involve anything from cautioning to revocation of licences. Civil proceedings should be appropriate if the statutory code is violated. We could revoke a licence either for an individual huntsman or for an entire hunt. Certain qualifications should be necessary before a licence is granted. There are many superb huntsmen in the country, and any worth his or her salt would not be frightened by having to qualify for a licence.
Licences should also include details that will cover the cowboys who have brought hunting into disrepute. It should be required that a huntsman telephones a central number before going outside his or her prescribed area of normal operation. That would ensure that a record was kept, which would stop cowboys going out of towns to operate in unprescribed and unregulated ways.
How would all that be paid for? A licensing fee of somewhere between £35 and £70 per head of those who hunt would allow the operation to be self-funding. It would cost about £1 million to do all that I have described, although my group is looking into the figures in detail.