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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is offering a useful solution in a reasonable and moderate way.

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My only criticism is that he may be suggesting a very bureaucratic regime. How would the independent supervisory body mesh with his regulator and the licensing system? He may be suggesting considerable bureaucracy to deal with a relatively simple problem.

Mr. Öpik: I can answer that in a single sentence: the independent hunting authority would have direct responsibility for the inspectors, who would report back to it. We do not envisage a separate regulator and authority; they are one and the same. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that we must not disappear into bureaucracy. The scheme could work efficiently because there are hundreds rather than tens of thousands of hunts. In addition, as the inspectors would operate geographically, some informal contact could be swiftly made.

I have outlined the key areas that the Middle Way group seeks to promote. The system would cost about £1 million a year, and we shall make a specific submission on that to the Government. We hope that our proposals will provide a constructive dialogue that satisfies the needs both of those offended by what they regard as the barbaric practice of fox hunting and of those who feel that their civil liberties will be put at risk by a ban.

Let us talk: the Middle Way group has no monopoly on good ideas, although our principles mean that we can only support an outcome that is fair, that balances animal welfare with human rights and that respects individual liberties. We must listen to each other and respect the strong emotions that the subject raises. We ask only that other organisations on both sides of the debate do that. If we do, we may find a way forward that satisfies the needs of the main organisations as well as the need for freedom.

The Middle Way group is happy to discuss, in bipartisan terms, the possibility of regional debates on the matter, perhaps covered by the regional media, so that we can widen discussion among the public. At a time when we are on the brink of securing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, where so many deep divisions existed, it would be ironic and a tragedy if the combined might of the British political system were unable to find lasting, cross-body agreement on fox hunting.

11.48 am

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for the way in which he made his case. I served with him on Standing Committee C, so the manner in which he spoke did not surprise me. We have had many interesting debates, and I am sure that we shall continue to do so.

I join the general welcome for the report of the Burns inquiry, and I congratulate Lord Burns on his work. I was among those hon. Members who signed an early-day motion expressing concern about the membership of the inquiry. Having expressed that opinion so publicly, it is right that I should say publicly today that I think that they have done a good job. I want to make sure that that sentiment appears in Hansard so that people may know where I stand.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made the reasonable point that the report is so comprehensive that no one can be expected to speak on every part of it. If anyone did, only one or two speakers would take us all the way to 2.30 pm. I shall speak mainly on the report's animal welfare implications, and a little on the way ahead.

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I am glad that there will be a free vote, so that hon. Members from all parties can reach their own conclusions. When considering mink, hares, foxes and deer, we need first to ask whether those animals should be controlled at all. If the answer is yes, then the debate should be about the best, most effective and most humane way to do that.

Is it necessary to control foxes? Some people do not believe that it is, but foxes are classed as a pest and their numbers have to be controlled. However, is hunting with dogs necessary to achieve that control? The submission of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Burns inquiry stated that hunting with dogs was irrelevant in pest control.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) made the interesting intervention--if I understood him correctly--that, in effect, hunting with dogs was a service to elderly foxes. I am not sure whether the foxes would see it in that light or whether they would welcome it. However, that point does not stand up to examination according to the inquiry; it pointed out that 40 per cent. of fox deaths were of cubs and took place during the cubbing season--those are not elderly foxes by any stretch of the imagination. Many fox cubs will, of course, die of natural causes--perhaps as many as half of them. If we remove that number from the total of those hunted by dogs, the remaining number is small, so hunting with dogs as a form of pest control for foxes is not necessary.

Mr. Gray: With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman has missed the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) was making. Hunting with hounds is selective killing. Those foxes that are least able to look after themselves--the old, infirm and sick--are the most likely to be caught by hounds. Young, fit foxes are much more likely to escape. Hunting with hounds carries out a useful animal welfare function that could not be achieved by lamping, for example, which is indiscriminate; it kills pregnant vixens, dog foxes and cubs. If there is a fox, the farmer shoots it. Hunting with hounds is selective.

Mr. Cawsey: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He used the word "young". I can only repeat that 40 per cent. of the foxes killed by hunting with dogs are cubs--young foxes. Furthermore, they are killed by a different form of hunting--one that many people feel is most offensive. The cubs are encircled and driven back. Indeed, foxhound puppies are trained to kill the fox, and if they are not able to do so--even as puppies--they are promptly dispatched with a shot in the head. Those practices do not provide good animal welfare arguments.

I was pleased to see that the Burns report dealt with the argument that, when a fox is hunted by a pack of dogs, it will be killed instantly by the lead hound with a bite on the back of the neck. I have never believed that claim and am pleased that Burns seems, finally, to have destroyed that myth--[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) wants to speak, I am happy to take an intervention.

Mr. Gray: I did not want to intervene twice on the hon. Gentleman, but he plainly has not read the report. Lord Burns concludes that nearly all hunted foxes are

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killed almost instantly. Of the 16 post-mortems that are included on the CD-ROM, 14 demonstrated that the fox had been killed by a single bite on the back of the neck. The Burns report makes it clear that fox hunting with hounds does indeed result in the instantaneous death of the fox.

Mr. Cawsey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have read the Burns report two or three times in great detail. It states that it is not the case that, when a fox is killed by a pack of dogs, it is always by a single bite on the back of the neck.

In Standing Committee, on 28 January, the hon. Gentleman stated that it was always the case that the fox was killed by a bite on the back of neck. The Burns report has shown that that is not the case, so I do not withdraw a word of what I said.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): May I quote a sentence from page 117 of the Burns report? Paragraph 6.48 states:

Mr. Cawsey: Indeed. However, that does not get away from the point that foxes are not killed by a single bite on the back of the neck by the lead hound. Furthermore, as we know, hunting with dogs is not relevant as a form of pest control. I find the whole process objectionable--including the chase and the stress to the fox.

Mr. Maclean: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. For the sake of brevity, I quoted only the last part of paragraph 6.48. The first part states:

The paragraph then continues with the sentence about death taking only a few seconds, which I quoted earlier.

Mr. Cawsey: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those helpful comments. Burns also notes that the process can take up to 31 minutes and sometimes longer. That is objectionable.

I have never believed the argument that, once the dogs catch the fox, death is necessarily instantaneous. Although it is not the intention of anyone who hunts, every year, some domestic animals or pets are attacked--they are in the wrong place, at the wrong time and the dogs chase the wrong quarry. When that happens, the hunt instantly acts to rescue the pet; sometimes, sadly, it is dead, but if it is alive, it will be treated by a vet. The fact that those animals survive tends to militate against the argument that death is instantaneous. Furthermore, the treatment is usually for bites to the belly, the back leg or the tail--it is far more likely that packs of dogs approaching an animal will attack in that way. Such incidents occur every year.

I do not believe that hunting is necessary for pest control or in order to avoid cruelty.

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