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1.36 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Until today, I thought that the only thing on which I agreed with the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) was supporting Chelsea football club. I now discover that I also agree with him about, not exactly the irrelevance, but the relative unimportance of the jobs argument in relation to this issue. Characteristically, the hon. Gentleman put his case well, but the robustness of his speech may have given us a clue about why we lost our bid for the world cup.

The flaw in the final, rather entertaining, part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, is that he has not read the Burns report, or has read it only selectively. Unlike the bulls that used to be baited, the foxes are going to die anyway, and Burns judges that other methods of control have their own problems from a welfare perspective. With respect, the argument is different, and the hon. Gentleman has not correctly understood the distinction between two different activities involving animals.

Like many people--probably on both sides of the House, to be honest--I believe that the debate on fox hunting that we are being forced into as a country and as a Parliament is largely a distraction from more important issues. However, it matters fundamentally because of its implications for minorities. I vividly remember going to the Birmingham rally of the Countryside Alliance last year and hearing a leading member of the Muslim community speak in favour of the right to allow English and Welsh men and women to continue to hunt, which he thought was an important minority right. The audience was moved by what this Muslim had to say about fox hunting, and Government Members should think carefully before dismissing the argument about minorities.

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Like everyone who has spoken in this debate, I think that the Burns report is excellent. It has its flaws, born of being a little rushed. A year, rather than six months, would have led to a better report, as there are issues that Lord Burns has not addressed properly, such as the way in which foxes are conserved by the practice of fox hunting, and too much emphasis is put on control. The implications of the welfare of hounds have not been considered properly, and neither has the importance of fox hunting to the landscape, and so on. Ultimately, that does not really matter, as two issues are at stake in the debate. On one side of the scale is animal welfare, and on the other, the freedom of individuals to do as they choose with their lives. Where does one strike the balance? How does one weigh those two issues?

I have a suggestion for the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. On unwhipped votes at least, hon. Members on both sides of the House should have to be able to demonstrate that they have studied the issues before being allowed to take part in the debate or vote. Certainly, if hon. Members were forced to read the Burns report from beginning to end and demonstrate an understanding of it, it would be impossible for any of them to conclude that fox hunting should be banned. However, I must part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), as the report does not suggest that one can leave fox hunting as it is; it highlights serious flaws and shortcomings in current practices, which need regulation. That goes to the heart of the Middle Way group's proposals, to which I shall return in a few moments.

I have one real fear. There are three of us in the Chamber who represent in Parliament the middle way, or compromise; besides myself, there are my hon. Friends--as I shall call them for these purposes--the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). I fear that we are being drowned out by the forces on either side of the argument. We have no money for advertising campaigns or public relations stunts. All we have is the power of our argument, to which I hope hon. Members will pause and listen, as I believe that there is scope for compromise on this issue.

Mr. Caplin: I said earlier that a party that tells the electorate that it will do something during a Parliament--in this case, introduce a ban on fox hunting--should carry on and do it. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that?

Mr. Luff: No, I do not. First, the Labour Government have already met their manifesto commitments. Secondly, when the facts change, I change my mind, and I would hope that the Government would do the same. Not only have the facts changed with the publication of the Burns report, but the compromise that the Middle Way group has put forward was not on the table at the time of the last election. I urge the hon. Gentleman to open his mind to the changed facts and consider the possibility of compromise.

The implications that a ban would have for farming and for social life in the countryside have been mentioned already. However, sufficient note has not been taken of the strength of support for fox hunting in rural areas. The Burns report states, on pages 75 and 76, that 60 per cent. of people in the study areas--where I accept fox hunting is practised--oppose a ban on hunting. Paragraph 4.35 is especially interesting. It states:

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Many people think that the argument is between toffs and the rest of us, but that finding shows that it is not: support for fox hunting is widely spread among the rural communities of England and Wales, and is concentrated not at the top, but at the bottom of the social class bands.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) dealt with the animal welfare points. The report does the argument a great favour by showing that drag hunting does not represent a viable alternative--another point that has already been made in the debate. However, there is still a need to emphasise the practical difficulties of a ban.

Paragraph 10.28 of the report states:

Paragraph 10.29 states:

The difficulties are clearly huge, and the report also looks at the problems of enforcement.

It is clear that fox hunting has no adverse implications for animal welfare. Quite the opposite: animal welfare would probably suffer, at the margin, if fox hunting were banned. A ban would have real economic and social implications for rural communities, and there would be practical difficulties in implementation and enforcement.

However, does that suggest that fox hunting should continue in its present form? I say that it does not. The Burns report also states that hunting poses serious problems concerning trespass and safety, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said in his excellent speech. Moreover, chapter 9 of the report deals with other problems, such as the openness of hunting, the length of the season, terrier work, and stopping up. Those issues need to be addressed.

Mr. Leigh: In his discussions with the Government as the representative of the Middle Way group, has my hon. Friend detected any sign of nervousness among Ministers about taking on such a large minority, of about a quarter of a million people? If a compromise solution along the lines that he suggests--the adoption of licensing, for example, and the ending of practices such as terrier work--were to be accepted, is there a possibility that some progress might be made?

Mr. Luff: I must say that the Under-Secretary, who is to respond to the debate, has been scrupulously fair and independent, although he has always made it clear that he personally favours a ban on hunting. It is clear that the Home Office intends to take the Middle Way group's proposals seriously, just as it will proposals from other quarters. I am entirely confident about the way in which the Home Office has handled this matter.

However, some Ministers do seem to be expressing some concern. I thought that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food seemed to hint that a compromise might be preferable. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) may be right: it is possible that some Ministers recognise the difficulty and, in the light of the Burns report, the illogicality, of proceeding to an outright ban on fox hunting.

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The hunting fraternity has moved, and the independent supervisory authority for hunting has been established, but that welcome step is not enough to give my constituents confidence about the problems that cause so much aggravation. The largest number of complaints about fox hunting made by the general public to Burns concerned trespass and public safety. Hunts do not deal with those issues very well, and greater sanctions are needed if they are to be addressed. We wish to develop the independent supervisory authority for hunting.

I do not want to read things into the Burns report that are not there, but helpfully, a form of licensing system is discussed in paragraphs 9.49, 9.50 and 9.51, as follows:

Clearly the Burns report identifies real benefits that would flow from our proposals.

If something causes problems and we do not like it, should our first reaction be to ban it, or to control it? The motor car kills thousands of people every year, but we do not ban it; we seek to control it with speed limits, traffic lights and the highway code. Alcohol causes huge problems, and we control its sale and availability. Smoking kills people; again, we seek to control it. We give people the option of no-smoking carriages; we do not say, "Ban, ban, ban."

The Middle Way group's proposal, which is based on licensing hunts, with sanctions for those who breach the terms of those licences, and the codes of conduct, represents the way forward. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire--who for these purposes is my hon. Friend--estimates that our proposals would cost about £1 million. It is a "give or take" figure, which we are trying to hone down. That represents about £2,500 to £5,000 a hunt, or about £25 to £50 for each subscriber. Those are the orders of magnitude. There would be no burden for the taxpayer, but there would be an additional cost to hunts, which they can ill afford. Many of them face financial difficulties--hunting is in decline in this country--but such sums are affordable.

I shall conclude my remarks because other hon. Members wish to speak. I urge hon. Members to read the Burns report. I have heard much praise for him today, and I am reminded of the words of Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar":

Labour Members have come to bury Burns by praising him, and it is important that the report be read objectively and fairly.

In the notes that I took when we met the Prime Minister last November, I wrote:

I stand by those remarks today.

In a letter to us, the NFU said:

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I believe that that is the conclusion of the Burns report, and I hope that hon. Members can be so persuaded.

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