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Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman would carry more weight in the House if he were prepared to recognise that, although he may have strong feelings on one side of the debate, this measure will have an acutely damaging impact on individuals, families and communities in many different parts of the country. He does no service to his argument by disregarding or dismissing the truth of that central proposition.
If the House should pause before depriving people of their recreation, it should hesitate still further before passing a law that will quite deliberately make it unlawful for people to continue in work that is presently lawful. The Government's own assessment is that between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs would be at stake if a
If the House were debating a proposal by a private sector employer to send out notices to quit or notices of redundancy to hundreds, or thousands, of our fellow citizens 10 days before Christmas, many Labour Members who are cheering for the Bill would be denouncing that employer as a heartless and ruthless exponent--[Interruption.]
Mr. Lidington: If people are trying to run a rural business, and depend for much of their revenue on hunting or on people involved in it, it is small comfort for them to be told that they do not figure in the statistics. The outlook is especially hard for people and businesses in remote rural areas, who are already suffering from a severe agricultural recession. Alternative work and customers are not easy to find. The cost of the Bill is real in terms both of human freedom and of human livelihoods, so evidence to suggest that hunting is unacceptably cruel would have to be overwhelming, and based on substantial and compelling results, to justify imposing a ban.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): As my hon. Friend knows, I represent a rural area. There is no doubt that some of my constituents will face job losses if option 3 is agreed. Many of them live in villages and are already hard pressed to find a local bobby wandering around. Even Clitheroe has policing problems, which are caused by overstretch. If option 3 is agreed to and hunting with hounds is banned, will the police not be even further stretched in trying to monitor what is occurring in our villages while also pursuing the people who will have become criminals?
Mr. Lidington: The Bill is the wrong priority for Parliament, and its enforcement would be the wrong priority for our police, whom citizens want to be out catching burglars, street robbers and other criminals.
It is not enough for advocates of the Bill to state merely that they disapprove of hunting, and it is even more inadequate to say that they disapprove of the people who take part in it. To quote the Burns report, the key test is
seriously compromises the welfare of the fox
Mr. Grieve: We live in a pluralist society. As such, must not we tolerate all sort of things that we might individually find bizarre? For instance, the practice of halal butchery is allowed in this country, and it is an exception to regulations that are otherwise imposed. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary for hunting to be singled out, when the Government are prepared to extend courtesy to practices about which pluralism is the very word that they use?
Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes his point well. Over the years, animal welfare lobby groups have argued passionately that the law should be changed to restrict or outlaw halal and kosher butchery. Successive Governments, Conservative and Labour alike, have rightly resisted those pressures on the grounds that religious liberty needs to be defended as a first principle in a plural and free society.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I have followed the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. Will he end his speech by giving an undertaking to the House and the country that, should we have the misfortune to see another Conservative Government, they would reintroduce hunting with dogs?
Mr. Lidington: My intention, and the intention of the majority of my colleagues, is to resist this ill-judged, unnecessary Bill. We shall base our arguments on its demerits and on the lack of any compelling arguments for enacting it.
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend was diverted from the subject of religious slaughter. Is he aware that, when it was my duty to make a decision on that matter, I objected strongly to religious slaughter and to the harm done to the animals, but I believed it right to ensure that, in a pluralist society, people who feel strongly about something should, in all circumstances except the most extreme, have certain rights? It is a serious matter to decide that one type of person may not have those rights, whereas another type may. Labour Members--especially the more voluble ones--should not assume that this is a simple matter. It is a serious matter, deeply concerned with freedom, which, if carried through, will threaten every minority in the country.
Mr. Lidington: My right hon. Friend speaks from the heart, and he speaks the truth. Were a ban to be introduced, it would be wrong in itself and would set a dangerous precedent for the way in which a temporary majority--of whatever political colour--in the House of Commons can treat a minority of its fellow citizens who are lawfully carrying out a practice of which that temporary majority happens to disapprove.
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the arguments that he is using today in defence of hunting are exactly the same as those used by Members of Parliament in the 1820s in defence of bull baiting? Is there not something to be said for the idea that the House should represent the interests of animals? They have interests as well, much though Conservative Members might mock the idea.
Mr. Lidington: I do not disparage the hon. Gentleman's consistent defence over many years of his point of view on this matter. However, I part company with him over the idea that, when it is proposed that Parliament use the coercive power of the law and the enforcement authorities to make illegal a practice that has previously been perfectly legal, there needs to be--[Interruption.] I am making a point that addresses what the hon. Gentleman said. There needs to be compelling, conclusive evidence of the cruelty to which the supporters of a ban allude--whereas to say that the evidence supplied to the Burns inquiry and published in its report is inconclusive is an underestimate. The evidence in the report shows that the case for a ban cannot be sustained on the grounds either of animal welfare or of preventing cruelty.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does my hon. Friend agree that the comparison should be made not with bear baiting or cock fighting but with fishing and game shooting? Is it not true that there are no essential differences of principle between foxhunting, angling and game shooting? They are all the same; we should defend them all.