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12.12 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I join my right hon. and hon. Friends and other hon. Gentlemen in warmly congratulating Lord Burns and his team on producing a remarkable, fascinating, important and relevant report. For those who have studied it, perhaps one of the most impressive things--apart from the way it is written, and the fact that it has gone into the issue in great depth--is the astonishing efforts that those people

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made to cover the ground. They made many visits to different types of field sports and occasions, on which they had a chance to put together the patchwork that makes up this profoundly difficult question. Lord Burns deserves the greatest credit for having done in such a short time what seemed to me at the beginning to be impossible. My anxieties were different from those of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), but I applaud the fact that he said that he had been anxious that Lord Burns would not have the time to carry out the work. Lord Burns has done it, and the House should be extremely grateful to him.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) referred to the Pendle Forest and Craven hunt and its master, Mr. Bannister, who wrote to him. I had the honour of being invited to speak to that hunt's supporters dinner last year. If ever there was an occasion on which one could see the tremendous strength of the tentacles of hunting that spread through the countryside, it was that dinner. People from all backgrounds and walks of life, of different persuasions and none, were together with a shared interest. They had a strong bond and an absolute commitment not just to hunting but to the countryside. I felt that the hon. Gentleman dealt with Mr. Bannister's letter in a disgraceful way. In my view, Mr. Bannister was making a profound and important comment.

My second point concerns a matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). He is a nice man who has been led astray. He knows absolutely nothing about hunting--and I mean nothing. For that reason, his speech must lack all credibility, although I was delighted to note that he had clearly studied the Burns report. We are near neighbours in Sussex, and I have regularly asked the hon. Gentleman whether he has ever been hunting, or has any idea what actually happens. No, he has not; he has not a clue. I therefore believe that, although he made a good speech about Burns, that speech cannot have credibility because of his fundamental ignorance of what takes place. He is in the same position as all the people who have never looked at hunting, or tried to understand it.

The report's main conclusion is that there are no good policy grounds for banning hunting. Lord Burns concludes that hunting with hounds has a role to play in pest control and species management, in rural employment, in social activities and in conservation. He does not conclude that it involves unnecessary suffering. I shall say more about that shortly, because it is an important and difficult issue.

Let me make an important point about the Government's behaviour. Before the Burns report had even been produced, the Government decided to present a Bill with a format similar to that used for the Sunday trading legislation. That, in my view, makes the Government guilty of a serious deceit. It is outrageous that they should make up their mind before even seeing the report.

The truth is that this is above all a matter of personal liberty, freedom and democracy. It is no part of the parliamentary process to foist on a minority the opinions and prejudices of a majority. Parliament should legislate to deal with activities that cause harm, as opposed to activities that certain people--for their own subjective reasons--profoundly, and in many cases entirely understandably, dislike.

I accept that a majority of our fellow citizens disapprove of hunting with hounds. They are genuine in their disapproval, feel strongly about the issue, see it as a

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moral issue, and would support a ban criminalising the activity. My argument is that those reasons do not begin to justify depriving the individual citizen of the right to take part in a lawful activity, and that the day on which that was held to be so would be a damaging day for all our freedoms.

Hunting with hounds is a lawful activity, engaged in for centuries by ordinary men and women in the United Kingdom. Each person in this and every other civilised country has now, and always has had, the right to engage in, or desist from, such activities, according to his or her private inclination. Such freedoms are inherent in citizenship, and membership of a civilised society.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The hon. Gentleman is making a central point. Does he accept that, although of course public opinion should not be a determinant--that is why we have a parliamentary process--it is entirely possible to argue that it is right to make something that was legal illegal, however long the legality has gone on? Indeed, the House did that quite recently in relation to firearms, because society's attitude had moved on. It is perfectly proper for Parliament to choose to make a practice illegal if it considers that to be in the country's interests.

Mr. Soames: What is proper and what is not is a decision for individuals and Governments to make. I shall shortly deal with the only circumstances in which I think a ban could be imposed.

The general public are not damaged by hunting. No one is compelled to hunt, nor are the rights of those who do not hunt infringed by those who do. It is hard to determine what most people know of the matter, or how it could be their business to intervene.

Mr. Leigh: Does my hon. Friend think that we would have this problem if hunts were operated only in deep rural areas, away from towns, and people did not wear scarlet jackets? How much of this is inverted snobbery?

Mr. Soames: I do not really buy very much of that. I think that wherever hunting took place, it would attract the type of opposition that it does. I shall deal in a moment with some of the objections to hunting that my hon. Friend has mentioned, concerning the type of ceremony attaching to it.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames: No; I must get on. Mr. Deputy Speaker has made the point that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I am not being rude, I am merely asking the hon. Gentleman to allow me to make some progress.

We will all be on dangerous ground if we genuinely begin to think that the views of casual majorities should be decisive in the framing of criminal legislation. Opinion polls in my constituency--which I have conducted myself in my constituency newspaper--have shown that a majority of the general public seem to disapprove of almost everything, including, inter alia, the Conservative party, buggery, tripe and black pudding, smoking, immigration, Radio 3--and, very likely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the colour

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of your front door, and indeed of mine. If all those, or more, are to be made the subject of criminal offences, we shall all be in jail before too long.

The point that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made about a ban is very serious. I believe that a ban could never be justified unless its proposers could show that hunting is positively harmful to society. An appeal to the strong disapproval of a majority does not begin to prove the case for a ban.

I should like to make a few remarks on the question of cruelty, about which people understandably, and rightly, feel strongly. I preface those remarks by saying that in no part of his report does Lord Burns conclude that hunting is cruel. Nevertheless, the issue of cruelty is important, and we have to make an objective judgment about what is or is not a tolerable level of cruelty to animals.

I should therefore like the Minister to make for me an assessment of the following questions concerning cruelty, and to send it to me by letter. I should like him to assess--out of 10, with 10 being the maximum for pain and zero for none--the relative pain and suffering to animals caused by the following happenings: a man hunting a fox with hounds; a man shooting a fox; a man poisoning a fox--

Mr. Cawsey: That is illegal.

Mr. Soames: Exactly.

The list continues: a man trapping a fox; a fox killing a pheasant; a fox killing a newborn lamb; a fox eating a pheasant chick as it hatches; a man shooting a pheasant; a man poisoning a rat; a greyhound coursing a hare; a stoat killing a rabbit; a cat playing with a dying mouse; a sparrowhawk killing a blackbird; a man keeping a wild bird in a cage; and a man keeping a dog on the wrong diet in an overheated house.

That should keep Home Office officials busy for a day or two. It is difficult to place those actions in any objective order, and it would be even more difficult if the question were which one of them should be banned by law.

Few of those who concern themselves with this debate challenge the need to control foxes. There are four ways of controlling foxes--shooting, trapping, hunting or poisoning--all four of which, of course, involve a degree of cruelty. However, for my part, I would guess that poisoning--which is illegal--is the cruellest, followed probably by shooting when the fox is wounded but not killed. Others, of course, will put the four in a different order. As I said, it is impossible to decide which action is crueller than any other.

However, it can never be agreed that fox hunting should be singled out as the cruellest, and unacceptably cruel at that. Thus the real motive of those who wish to ban hunting can only be that the activity gives much pleasure to many. They spitefully seek to frustrate that pleasure by pushing the cruelty argument. After hunting is dealt with, they will turn to shooting, another sport that millions enjoy. Indeed, if cruelty were the real concern, we should start with the poisoning of rats, which is probably the cruellest thing that we do to a highly intelligent mammal. However, that is not a sport that people enjoy.

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Foxes are not pets, but magnificent wild animals living the life of freedom and danger for which nature brilliantly designed them, as they have done for countless thousands of years. For centuries, their lives have been inextricably linked to the patchwork of our magnificent countryside, much of which, throughout the length and breadth of the land, was laid out for hunting and shooting. Indeed, those interests still do a great deal to shape the beauty of the landscape, and foxes share the marvellous woods, fields, hedges and hills with farmers and their livestock.

On to this astonishingly intricate tapestry of history and ancient custom and practice, as delicate and fine as a silken thread, these bossy, largely urban know-alls are trying to thrust themselves with ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. They must understand, but they do not, that if they want foxes to observe--we would all love to have foxes to observe and enjoy--we must have hunting to make sure that they are there in the first place.

Sadly, the greater part of those who oppose hunting do so because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) rightly said, fox hunting involves a blatant assertion of traditional English values which, unfortunately, are no longer admired as much as they used to be: good manners, ceremony, boldness and display, hierarchy, and easy courtesy--which, for its opponents, is almost impossible to understand. Above all, fox hunting involves the remarkable natural harmony between all those, whatever their background or occupation, who love hunting and enjoy comradeship in the life of our countryside and all that it means.

That is obnoxious to those who despise hunting, many of whom were brought up in the genuine belief that the classes are still at war. I do not believe that any polytechnic-bred lout can see the pink coats--the young men, women and children who are well turned out on ponies and horses, on which a great deal of time and trouble have been spent, and which can sense the enjoyment and fun of the thrill, challenge and pleasure of the hunt and all that goes with it--without feeling the urge to pull down the symbols of authority and spit on a piece of old England.

I conclude by saying that this wonderful and beautiful country, in which we are astonishingly lucky and privileged to live, is generally marked apart from less favoured nations by the tolerance, extraordinary good nature and generally civilised manner of its democracy and way of life.

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