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Dan Norris: In working out whether the burden has been discharged, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that we need to attend a hunt and to witness
Mr. Howard: My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has spoken for himself. I think that the more people know about any activity, the better informed their opinion is likely to be, but the hon. Gentleman's intervention is completely irrelevant because this is a debate on the Burns report and I am basing my observations entirely on that report.
It is not surprising that the Burns committee should have reached the conclusion that it did. The same question was considered by the Scott Henderson committee, which was set up by the post-war Labour Government and which reported in 1951. Its report also adopted the approach that I have set out and that is adopted by the Burns committee. The Scott Henderson committee concluded:
Those who seek to ban fox hunting have wholly failed to establish that it causes more suffering to foxes than the other legal methods of keeping the fox population under control, which would be more greatly used if hunting were banned. In short, the Burns report makes it crystal clear that there is no animal welfare case for banning fox hunting. That means that there is no case for banning fox hunting, and it should not be banned.
I wish to make just one more point. The future of fox hunting in Scotland will be decided by the Scottish Parliament. There can therefore be no justification for right hon. or hon. Members of this House who sit for Scottish constituencies taking any part in the decision on fox hunting in England and Wales. Were they to do so, they would violate the most basic tenets of democracy. I very much hope that they will exercise restraint.
Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): This is the first time that I have been able to contribute to a debate on animal welfare. I shall make a few points about democracy and Parliament before turning to animal welfare.
Before the general election in 1997, hunting was debated at length in my constituency. The previous Member, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, was closely attached to field sports organisations and held strong views in support of hunting. That was well known in the constituency, and was a matter of repeated debate when he attended public meetings and throughout the campaign. For those interested, the issue was one of those relevant in the general election. I made it clear that I felt that a ban would be right. In my election literature and newsletters, I advanced that position.
Mr. Gray: Has the hon. Gentleman spotted appendix 3 to the Burns report, which makes it plain that the committee invited the public to write to it? Some 5,945 people did so; of them, 5,669 supported fox hunting and only 263 opposed it. Why should that be?
Mr. Darvill: I cannot explain that. My own experience has helped me to reach my view of how Parliament should deal with the matter. I recognise that those representations were made to the Burns inquiry, but I shall outline the representations that I have received on the matter. As Parliament is making the decision, we need, as part of our deliberations, to weigh up what our constituents are saying. We also have to consider what we say to the electorate when we seek election. If, in the run-up to an election, we argue in support of a ban, we have a mandate to carry it out. If one changed one's mind after weighing up the evidence, one would be answerable to one's electorate.
I take this matter seriously. It is incumbent on all Members of Parliament to study the report and listen to the debates so that we can understand the issues on which we shall legislate. Because of that, I attended a hunt. One of my constituents, who hunts regularly, wrote to me acknowledging that I had taken a view on the matter, but asking me to go with him to the hunt. At some ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, I was taken to a hunt somewhere in mid-Kent. I was treated courteously. I was shown around and was told about stock, the welfare of dogs and so on. I did not witness the hunt itself, but I listened to the representations that were put to me. They certainly carried some weight, especially those concerning the social aspects of hunting. I acknowledge the points made by many Opposition Members on such matters. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) asked how many Labour Members had witnessed a hunt. Some of us take our responsibilities seriously and are prepared to listen and to engage in debate.
Our manifesto promised that there would be a free vote. That implied that Parliament would legislate. That is an important democratic issue--if candidates promise to legislate, but then move away from that, it leads to derision from the electorate. Many people feel that there should be legislation.
Mr. Öpik: If a report, such as the Burns report, changed perceptions of the merits or demerits of a course of action, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in those circumstances, the Government would be obliged to do the right thing, rather than to follow a line that might have become redundant?
Mr. Darvill: Indeed. We have the duty to understand the Burns report. It is our right and duty to debate it, as we are doing. No doubt when the Bill is introduced there will be further detailed discussion. We are under a duty to hold that debate throughout the country so as to explain the issues. Opposition Members, including the hon. Gentleman, do that well; they make their views known. The hon. Gentleman and others have made their case on television.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made a good point when he said that we had to find a balance in the legislation between the ethical and moral arguments and the removal of the rights of individuals. The legal arguments are set out clearly in the Burns report--although inevitably, there are two legal opinions on compatibility with the European convention on human rights. The first is the Fitzgerald opinion that was obtained by the Countryside Alliance. It considered whether a ban could be tested in the European Court. The other is the Pannick opinion, which concluded that
We must consider those opinions when we decide whether any Bill that we pass will be successful. One significant issue is whether a ban would lead to the "protection of morals" and, notwithstanding the opinions of Opposition Members, I believe that there is significant evidence that the welfare of foxes and other animals is compromised by hunting. The implication that I take from the Burns report is that hunting has an adverse animal welfare effect. I appreciate that there are strong arguments on both sides, but I have come to the conclusion that the welfare of animals is paramount and that leads me to support the introduction of legislation.