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Mr. Darvill: I said that it is incumbent on us to consider all the animal welfare issues--which, in a very

7 Jul 2000 : Column 576

good report, Burns highlighted. To that extent, the inquiry it has performed a service. I am pleased about today's debate and I will be pleased when we debate the Bill that is introduced.

If the matter is ever tested in the European Court, it will consider whether the House has appreciated the wider issues involved. When other European countries have introduced bans, they have not been tested and that fact must weigh in our minds when we are considering any Bill.

The arguments of hon. Members on both sides have been made perfectly adequately, but there is a strong case for introducing a Bill because of the democratic argument that I made earlier. I passionately believe that we should have a free vote and I shall be very interested to study the options that are presented. I will treat them with an open mind but bearing in mind the assurances that I gave my electorate. The sooner we have the debate and deal with the detail, the better.

I am pleased that the Government commissioned the report, that they have indicated that a Bill will be introduced, and that the debate will lead to a decision. If we do not come to a conclusion, the sovereignty of Parliament and the way in which we conduct our business will be prejudiced. People take the issue seriously and it is incumbent on us to do something about it.

1.14 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I represent a substantial number of hunts--perhaps more than any other Member of Parliament--so my constituents will be greatly affected by any ban.

I welcome the Burns report as an authoritative and comprehensive work on the hunting of animals with dogs. It is a well-researched document that was produced in a short time, and I congratulate Lord Burns and his team on it. It is the first authoritative work since the Scott Henderson report of 1950. That report presaged the return of a Conservative Government after a Labour Government who had a majority of 145 in 1945. Just six years later, in 1951, the Conservative Government had a working majority of 65. Perhaps history will repeat itself.

I wish to raise one or two important issues. The Burns report deals with the governance of hunting. I would welcome a strong self-regulating body, so I welcome the creation of the independent supervisory authority for hunting. I have corresponded over a number of years with the Masters of Foxhounds Association, which has hitherto had that role. It has not always been as strong as it might have been and I have corresponded with it specifically about the blocking of roads, the uncourteous behaviour of hunting participants, and trespass. Those who participate in hunts should behave with the highest probity. Their maxim should be to cause as little inconvenience to the public and those who do not wish to participate as possible.

Equally, I would welcome greater openness through the creation of independent inspectors. That would take away some of the mystique of, and suspicion about, hunting.

Has the case for a ban been made by reasonable people? The report makes much of the social activities that hunts generate, but does not say an awful lot about the social fabric of the countryside--the fact that farmers plant and

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maintain woodland, hedges, fences, drains and other rural features. It is partly as a result of the tremendous co-operation between hunts and farmers that land management is of such high quality. I do not say that if hunting were banned tomorrow--I hope that it will not be--the countryside would start to run down immediately. However, I believe that over a period, the ban would have an effect on land management.

Is the case for a ban reasonable? Deadline 2000 argues, in paragraph 10.16 of the Burns report, that there should be no compensation. As I said in an earlier intervention, I have tabled a parliamentary question on aspects of compensation. If the Government get as far as introducing a Bill but do not prescribe some form of compensation, there will almost certainly be a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights. I did not mean to be unreasonable when I intervened on the Home Secretary, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will now consider carefully my parliamentary questions and answer them as soon as possible so that everybody can consider the implications.

Paragraph 10.33 of the report says that Deadline 2000 wants hunting banned within two months of Royal Assent. That seems totally unreasonable. It is even thought to be unreasonable by the Burns committee, which, at paragraph 10.35, says:

That must make sense. I sometimes wonder about the role of the RSPCA and Deadline 2000, and whether they are really concerned about cruelty to animals or merely about political correctness.

The strongest argument against a ban is the liberal toleration of minorities. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, this country had a tremendous reputation for housing philosophers, poets, writers and others who, had they remained in their own countries under the authoritarian regimes that existed in other parts of Europe, would have been sentenced to death. It is partly because we tolerated people whom other countries would not tolerate that our cultural history is great today. Once a Government, whether Labour or Conservative, start to become illiberal or oppressive and to ban minorities of which they disapprove, where will it all end? Will shooting be next? What about angling? What about the breeding of animals for red meat? Even racing may be considered cruel to horses.

Hunting is an entirely voluntary activity and should be a matter for individual conscience, not one with which a politically correct Government should interfere. I plead with Labour Members for tolerance. I do not like drunken football hooligans going abroad and giving this country a shocking name, but I do not want to see football banned. Vast numbers of the public are sympathetic to hunting but do not wish to participate. Indeed, at paragraph 4.45 the Burns report cites the MORI poll's finding that a mere 25 per cent. of respondents were opposed to hunting, which incidentally was lower than the number of those who supported it. A large number of people in the middle do not mind much either way. It also found that two-thirds thought that hunting played an important part in rural life.

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I can testify that in my constituency hunting plays an important part in our rural fabric. I welcome the debate, and I sincerely hope that the Government are listening with an open mind to all the proposals, and that we do not necessarily have to go as far as a Bill to ban hunting.

1.20 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): I join the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and others in welcoming the Burns report. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's statement and the Government's intention to introduce a Bill. The only small criticism I would make is that that should have been done some time ago.

The hon. Members for Cotswold and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred to the conflict between individual liberties and animal welfare, and said that there were sincere arguments on both sides. Their conclusion was that a ban would be an intrusion into personal liberties. There has been much talk of the European convention on human rights and possible challenges in a higher court. The only voice that is not heard is, naturally, that of the animal being hunted. When I hear about all these individual rights, I wonder who is speaking up for animal rights. I believe that animals have rights, but unfortunately the only people who can decide how their rights should be protected are human beings, many of whom spend much time abusing animals.

I should like briefly to deal with three issues raised in the Burns report on fox hunting. The first is the argument about pest control, which one often hears from those defending fox hunting. It is arrant nonsense. If the fox is such a pest, why is there a close season on fox hunting? I have never understood the logic of that. For example, there would not be a close season on cockroaches, mice or rats, so if the fox is a pest why on earth is there a close season?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: There is a good, practical reason for having a close season. Hunting stops when foxes become pregnant and have their cubs. It would be quite wrong to hunt pregnant vixens.

Mr. Banks: Let me think this through. If one has a pest, one stops hunting it while it breeds more pests. I do not want foxes to be hunted, because I do not believe them to be a pest, but I am trying to follow the logic of the pest control argument. The hon. Gentleman's argument is logically absurd. If the fox is a pest, surely the very time to hit it is when it is breeding more pests. I would not do that, but that is the logic of the argument.

Mr. Gray: Perhaps I can clarify the matter for the hon. Gentleman. There is no close season on foxes. Most of the foxes killed in this country are killed in the middle of the summer, and that often includes pregnant vixens. Of the 400,000 foxes that are killed in this country every year, most of them are shot, and mostly during the summer. If a pregnant vixen can be caught and shot, that is much more efficient than hunting it with hounds. The only close season is on hunting with hounds, as it is viewed as unsporting and uncivilised to chase a pregnant vixen with hounds. Farmers and others whose activities replace hunting will kill foxes all year round.

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