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Mr. Lidington: Not only is my right hon. and learned Friend correct on that point, but part of the open agenda of some of the animal rights groups is that, having achieved--as they hope to do--a ban on hunting with hounds, they would move on to attack game shooting and fishing. They will adopt a new target as each successive one is achieved.

Burns concludes that it is not enough to ask about the impact on animal welfare of hunting with hounds. In considering the evidence on alleged cruelty, we must also assess the welfare advantages and disadvantages of other methods of animal control. The report shows repeatedly that when the committee examined the evidence, it concluded that there were serious problems with every proposed alternative. To ban stag hunting would meant that more deer were stalked and killed by less skilful shooters. The report notes that in that case, "wounding rates would increase". More wounded animals would linger and suffer for many days if a ban on hunting were enacted.

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Burns concludes that both snaring and shooting can have serious adverse welfare implications. The report favours the lamping method of fox control--dazzling a fox at night before shooting it with a high-velocity rifle. The report concludes that on welfare grounds that method is preferable to hunting with hounds; it does not make that statement about any other method of control.

The report notes some serious problems with the lamping method, however. It needs good vehicular access; the method is unsuitable for uneven terrain, woodland or scrub. The National Farmers Union points out that the Burns analysis ignores the problem of lamp-shy foxes. It would be far from a panacea, even in areas where it might be practical to employ it. Nor could one ignore--[Interruption.] If Labour Members are attracted by that method of control, they must address the risks posed to human safety. In a rather euphemistic phrase, the Burns report states that

I suspect that the last thing that the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues want is to see a large number of people tramping through the countryside with high-velocity rifles, lethal at a distance of up to 2 miles, at a time when the Government have enacted legislation to encourage more people to roam freely across that same countryside. That method of control simply will not work; and as Burns concluded on page 119 of his report:

I argue that Burns underestimates the damage to animal welfare that a ban on hunting would cause. Many farmers and landowners tolerate foxes and deer on their land, despite the damage that may be done to crops or livestock, because they--the farmers and landowners concerned--enjoy or support the continuation of hunting. It is my belief that if hunting were banned, many more animals would be shot, snared or trapped, with all the drawbacks in terms of animal welfare that those methods of control would bring. In my view, the case for a ban on animal welfare grounds is shaky in the extreme; it is far from the compelling case that is needed to justify the Bill.

So why is the Bill before us? In part it comes, no doubt, from Ministers' wish to provide a sop to throw to Labour Back Benchers who are increasingly frustrated at the Government's failure to deliver on other aspects of their programme. We have had from the Home Secretary today, expressed in his usual emollient style, a profession of Government neutrality on the Bill, but that sits rather oddly with the guillotine motion that is already on the Order Paper for today. It sits even more oddly with the threat--which, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, was briefed to one of the newspapers--that if the Government failed to get their way in this Parliament they would seek, if they had the opportunity, to use the Parliament Acts to ram the Bill into law.

I cannot help wondering--

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Lidington: I give way, for the last time.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is aware that if the unfortunate should happen and part III of schedule 3

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were selected, we would face the introduction of powers for vehicles to be seized, homes searched and animals arrested, merely on the suspicion of a constable. Does my hon. Friend consider that that power is proportionate, or does he think that it violates the fundamental tenet of liberal tradition in this country--that a person is innocent until proven guilty?

Mr. Lidington: If we are, in the event, faced with schedule 3, serious questions will need to be asked about the definitions of offences, the extent of police powers, the penalties that the schedule includes, and the statutory defences for which it provides. However, I believe that today we should concentrate on the argument of principle.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lidington: I regret that I will not give way again.

The Government's priorities are gravely wrong. The Hunting Bill was not only included in the Government programme but introduced as one of the first Bills in a new Session of Parliament. And yet the Government have not found time for an adoption Bill, which must now wait for the Private Members' Bills procedure. They have no time for a Bill to enhance vaccine damage payments, of which the Secretary of State for Social Security said on 27 June:

The Government have no space, either, for a Bill, other than in draft form, to confiscate the assets of organised criminals, about which the Home Secretary told the Social Market Foundation on 8 June:

Even yesterday, the Minister for Public Health promised that the Government would introduce a Bill to embed in primary legislation a ban on human reproductive cloning. She said that the Government

Those Bills deserve higher priority than the Hunting Bill, and far more compelling arguments can be made in their support. The most charitable explanation is that the Government have a peculiar and warped sense of legislative priority. Those of us who have more sceptical and suspicious minds might think that this is an effort by the Labour party, which has received large sums from some animal rights campaign groups, to show that it is now delivering the legislation in return for the cash that it has received.

The Bill represents a major attack on the freedom of a large minority of our fellow citizens. Its supporters have been unable to provide compelling evidence that a ban on hunting, and the reliance on shooting or snaring instead, would enhance animal welfare or reduce cruelty. The Bill is intolerant and illiberal, and it deserves to be rejected in the Lobby tonight.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Deputy Speaker: I remind all hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches in this debate.

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5.31 pm

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): I welcome the introduction of the Bill by the Government, and I will support its Second Reading. Of course, this Second Reading would not necessarily have had to take place now if certain Opposition Members had not blocked previous private Members' Bills. I respect the Government's neutrality on the issue, but I welcome their commitment to ensure that the matter is brought to an end. In November 1997, 411 Members voted to ban hunting with dogs. After that result, it was inconceivable that the issue would go away. The House had spoken; it demanded action and, today, we have the response--a Government Bill backed by a timetable motion.

Like the first two hon. Members who spoke, I shall state which option I prefer. I will vote for an outright ban on hunting with dogs. It is all too easy, given the emotion surrounding the debate, to get carried away and say that all hunt supporters are bloodthirsty barbarians or hooray Henrys; they are not, and it would be wrong to do so. It is equally wrong to suggest that all anti-hunt supporters do not listen, are townies and fail to understand the countryside. The Burns inquiry has provided all sides of opinion with considerable food for thought.

I hope that the debate will reflect the considered views of Members, who feel very passionately about the subject, but I also hope that, when a conclusion is reached, the prevailing view will be given a smooth passage in this House and elsewhere. I have said on many occasions that the issue is about animal welfare and our moral obligation to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: With only 10 minutes, I am afraid that I will not give way.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that interventions are treated as additional to the length of speeches, otherwise the debate will not be conducted in the proper way?

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