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I am not even in favour of the suggestion that there could have been local referendums, although at least one could claim that coliseums were fixed places, so it would not have been quite as stupid as making that proposal in respect of events which, by their nature, outrun geographical boundaries. That would not be constitutionally sensible.
Nor do I take the argument that because the emperor and the upper classes attended such events at the coliseum, should they have been stopped that would have been the politics of envy. Nor do I believe that a ban would have represented a serious intrusion on the individual liberties of circus goers.
There is, however, one very good argument that members of the Romans and countrymen alliance would have advanced. They could have said that at least they did not have Christians chased for miles, to the point of exhaustion, before enjoying watching them being torn apart: now that would be barbarous and cruel. That is barbarous and cruel. That is why I believe that we should ban hunting with hounds, be it of hares, deer, foxes or mink. This is a matter of democracy, because it is the unfinished business of the House and the settled will of the British people.
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): On behalf of all Opposition Members, I wish the Minister a speedy recovery from his operation. Let us hope that he is back on his horse soon--but not too high a horse.
We have heard some good and thoughtful contributions from both sides of the argument, but listening to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), for example, I felt that this was a sad day for democracy and a worrying one for politically incorrect minorities, and the final nail in the coffin for the Government's protestations that they believe in social inclusion. Thank goodness not all Labour Members took that line.
The Government have affirmed that they will introduce legislation that will inevitably lead to a ban on hunting, even though the excellent Burns report produced not a single scrap of evidence to justify that. Conservative Members accept that the freedom of the individual must be constrained when there are overwhelming public policy reasons for doing so, but in this case there are none at all.
Mr. Garnier: I feel a sense of frustration, in that my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and I are the only three Members of Parliament who made submissions that are listed in the Burns report. Does he agree that the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) are incontrovertible and that if people cannot be bothered to read the Burns report, they should at least read the Hansard report of his speech?
Mr. Maclean: My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. My right hon. and learned Friend's contribution was superb, with his customary logic--and I do not have to say that, as I no longer depend on him for my employment.
If there is to be any justification for a ban, it must be shown that any legislation will enhance animal welfare. Unless Parliament has objective, sustainable evidence of that, it will be wrong in principle to legislate. Burns has failed to show that there is any evidence that a ban would enhance animal welfare. Rather, the evidence is to the contrary.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said, it is no part of our democratic inheritance to foist on a minority the prejudices and opinions of the majority. Parliament should legislate to deal with activities that cause harm, not those that certain people, for their own subjective reasons, dislike.
Mr. Maclean: I object to a ban on hunting now that we have the Burns report, because it contains no evidence to suggest that a ban is sensible or morally correct or that we should overrule our fundamental human freedoms. There has already been a free vote in the House. We have new evidence in the form of the Burns report, so Labour Members should be able to get off the hook on which they have hoist themselves.
Dr. Palmer: The right hon. Gentleman says that there has been a free vote, but does he not agree that it is fundamentally unsatisfactory that the vote was frustrated by filibustering and that, with the Burns report, it is reasonable to return to the issue?
Mr. Maclean: I have turned up here every Friday, hoping to speak on the Medical Treatment (Prevention of Euthanasia) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), and I understand that we are still on clause 1 because Government Members are using legitimate parliamentary procedures to ensure that it does not advance by one inch. If the hon. Gentleman will join me in condemning that practice, I will condemn other practices in the House that I may dislike.
Many points have been covered in today's debate, which has been worth while. It is only a pity that we did not have the debate before the Government announced their intention to ban hunting, even before Lord Burns had presented his report. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex was right to condemn the Government for that.
Mr. Banks: The Burns report is evidence that we can use when the legislation comes forward. It does not compel us to accept it or to reject it. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that anyone on either side of the argument has been convinced by anything in the Burns report?
Mr. Maclean: No one has been convinced by listening to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues today. It is interesting that Labour Members have paid polite attention to Burns. They congratulate Lord Burns on an excellent report and then find every excuse possible to avoid its conclusions. Burns has shot the fox of the anti-hunting extremists and Labour Members do not like that.
We would have enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) more if it had not prevented other hon. Members from participating. There is nothing more likely to inflame English and Welsh country people than if Scottish Members come to a debate on the Bill, make their points and then attempt to vote. The Government have unbalanced this Parliament by having two classes of MP. A group of MPs from Scotland have additional rights. If they use those legal rights to vote on this English measure, that will do more than anything else to stir up English nationalism.
Mr. Maclean: I shall not give way, because I must push on. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) on his contribution, which I enjoyed, although--like many Labour Members--he tried to play down the job losses. The Burns report is clear that up to 8,000 jobs could be lost, not the mere 700 that the hon. Member for West Ham suggested. Burns goes on to suggest that many more people depend on hunting for their incomes, and that is why it is legitimate to talk of some 13,000 to 14,000 people who could be affected by a ban on hunting.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) also made some telling speeches. I urge the Government to listen carefully to some of the solutions that they advanced. I do not entirely agree with everything that my hon. Friends suggested, but they may have a solution that would go some way towards getting the Government off the hook and preventing a clash with rural people that would result in a further crisis in the countryside.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) said that the loss of jobs would be within normal fluctuations. That may be true numerically, but we have never before had a Government deliberately creating unemployment by banning a legal activity. That is what makes the job losses so unacceptable. They are unacceptable because they are totally avoidable, if only people were unprejudiced enough not to ban hunting.
We have had many interesting contributions today, but not sufficient comment--in my view--on the social and cultural aspects of hunting. Coming from the Lake district, I am biased in many ways, because I see the deep social and cultural attachment that my constituents have to hunting.
About eight years ago, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and I negotiated at the Earth summit in Rio and agreed on the Rio declaration on sustainable development, principle 22 of which states:
When we read the Burns report, we find that, despite the huge amount of superb work that was carried out, it provides no evidence in any chapter to demonstrate that hunting should be banned--not from a social perspective, or from an animal welfare perspective, and certainly not from an economic perspective. All the arguments are on the side of my right hon. and hon. Friends and me, and support the case that we have advanced today. We can see that there is no overwhelming welfare reason to ban hunting and that there is therefore no public policy imperative that can overturn the fundamental freedom of an individual to participate in country sports.
To me, the debate on hunting is not about economic issues, environmental issues, or even animal welfare issues. The issue at the heart of the debate is an ethical one--it is the question of personal liberty. At stake are the rights and freedoms of individuals. The question of a ban on hunting is one that affects every person in this country, whether or not they have ever seen a horse or a hound or a hunt. My reason for opposing a ban, now that we have conclusive proof that there is no overwhelming welfare reason to impose one, is founded on my belief in the importance of a tolerant free society, the defining characteristic of which is that the rights of minorities are tolerated and respected. This country has a long tradition of tolerance of which we can rightly be proud.
I accept that the majority of Members of Parliament support a ban on hunting, but that, in itself, is not sufficient to justify a ban. The disapproval of an activity by the majority in a society does not, of itself, provide the case for the criminalisation of that activity. The only justifiable ground on which to take away an individual's right to act as he chooses is when doing so is irrefutably in the overriding interests of society as a whole. No one who has read Burns could argue convincingly that the prohibition of hunting would meet that criterion. Like many others, hunting is an issue on which each individual should be allowed to arrive at a personal moral judgment.
Even at this late stage, I appeal to the Government not to pursue what will inevitably be a confrontation with country people. Do not turn 250,000 honest, law-abiding British subjects into criminals. Do not alienate them further by forcing them to accept the Government's prejudices, their Back Benchers' prejudices and their value systems.
I live in the countryside. I see my constituents at work and on social occasions. They are quiet, placid, law-abiding people--the salt of the earth. All other hon. Members will say the same of their own constituents, but the Government are dangerously provoking them. They are playing with fire. I beg them not to ignite the powder keg that is smouldering in the countryside. I ask them to look for a way out and discuss with the Middle Way group and other organisations methods by which they can get off the hook on which they have hoist themselves.
The argument is not just about the countryside. Anyone who cares for the right of individuals to make personal choices must oppose a ban on hunting. We have traditionally looked to Parliament to protect the rights and freedoms of minorities, even though it has the power to take away all our freedoms. It can act totally, utterly illiberally if it wishes. It can ban hunting, fishing, shooting, boxing, motorcycle racing, the reading of certain books and lots more besides. We have the power to do it, but the exercise of that power would diminish Parliament. Our people would be less free. They would be subject to the tyranny of the prejudices of the majority.
All hon. Members have a sacred duty to ensure that this country does not sacrifice our liberal traditions in pursuit of some artificial goal of conformity, sentiment and political correctness. It has taken us 300 years to construct this tolerant liberal democracy of ours. I urge the Government not to ban things just because they dislike them; that would take us back to a new dark age of bigotry, intolerance and strife.