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There is a moral case for saying that there should be no hunting whatever. It is an odd case, because it presumes that a human being is not an animal, and has no role in the predatory chain. That is a possible case, but not a logical one. However, there can be no moral case that makes a distinction between hunting with dogs and game shooting or angling.
There is an argument that we should ban hunting for the political benefit of the Labour party, and because some people have a distaste for that kind of behaviour. That second statement is very serious.
Many minority groups in this country need the support of the House. I return to my own moral dilemma. I was asked by a large number of people to introduce a ban on ritual slaughter. I hate ritual slaughter. I consider it deeply offensive, and the religious ground on which it is put forward does not stand up, either historically or in modern times. However, I still believe that I was right to agree that religious slaughter should continue. I did so, much as I hate it, because I believed that a greater freedom was involved: the freedom of men and women to decide for themselves. If we take that freedom away because we do not care about a particular small minority, what will happen to the other minorities? What about the Muslims and the Jews? What about some of the things that townspeople do that I find distasteful? What about groups of any kind who can be cut off, divided and left undefended?
I am a long-standing opponent of this barbaric sport. In Reading, I campaigned on the issue long before the 1997 general election. The publication of the Bill has reinvigorated my faith in the Government; I went into the 1997 election with the perception that we would ban foxhunting, but that we would not privatise a certain public service. My faith has been restored.
It was a privilege to serve on the Standing Committee on the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). We witnessed the tactics of Conservative Members who successfully frustrated the will both of the country and of this Chamber.
Mr. Salter: There is no doubt that the largest number of items in my constituency mailbag--and, I suggest, that of the majority of hon. Members--are letters from people in favour of an immediate and complete ban on the sport or pastime of hunting with hounds. It is right that the matter is the subject of a Government Bill.
There is overwhelming public support for such a ban. Of all the arguments, the most specious and spurious is that the issue is one of country versus town. There is no apartheid in this country. All the poll data show that between 70 and 80 per cent. of the population are opposed to hunting with hounds--that opposition is spread between town and country.
Mr. Salter: I advise hon. Members who disagree with the Bill's proposals--especially those in the third schedule--to visit the master of the New Forest drag hounds and to hear about the prejudice he had to put up with in the countryside when he attempted to convert his hunt to the humane sport of drag hunting. He was discriminated against; his drag hunt was suddenly barred from crossing certain land in the area.
Mr. Salter: It is clear that there is no interest among the foxhunting fraternity in allowing drag hunting to prosper. That is why it sees drag hunting as a big threat to its arguments. It is important to nail the lie about jobs.
The Conservative party and the Countryside Alliance are desperate to get another big lie up and running--that this country is being run by a metropolitan elite of ignorant townies who do not understand the country way of life. Conservative Members are nodding. Perhaps they should reflect on the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) is chair of the rural group of Labour MPs and that Labour Members represent more rural seats than the Conservatives represent currently--or in the foreseeable future.
The Conservative party and the Countryside Alliance should realise that we are alive to their lies and trickery, as they try to scaremonger among Britain's 3 million anglers--of whom I am one. There is no logical reason why a ban on cock fighting should lead to a ban on something else. We draw a line in the sand, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) said.
The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) referred to angling as a sport in which we allow a fish to swallow a fly and then tear out its guts before throwing it back into the water. I and other hon. Members who fish know the truth: either we take and kill our fish humanely for the pot--as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) does--as a game, trout or salmon fisherman; or, in the case of coarse fishermen such as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and myself, we may catch our fish, we may photograph our fish--I even confess to occasionally
Mr. Salter: The other big lie to be nailed tonight and every time we discuss this issue is the notion that hunting has anything to do with pest control. I have taken the trouble to visit the Garth and South Berkshire hunt in my constituency, where people admitted that the pest control arguments are complete and utter tosh; and that the most acceptable, efficient and sensible way to control foxes is by lamping with a rifle and a professional gamekeeper.
Mr. David Taylor: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm whether you are taking the same line as your predecessor in the Chair--that there will be injury time for interventions during the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches?
No group of people in this country is more inappropriate to pray in aid minority rights than the Countryside Alliance and many of its Conservative supporters. Anyone at the Labour party conference in Brighton who heard the chanting and slogans emanating from the mouths of members of the Countryside Alliance about black and gay people should be under no illusions about their commitment to minority rights--[Hon. Members: "What?"]
A recent Radio 4 programme included contributions from Robin Page--one of the most prominent activists in the Countryside Alliance--and my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. Anyone who heard the programme will remember one particular quotation. Robin Page said that if hunters were gay or Muslim, the Labour party would leave them alone. That tells us volumes about the alliance's interest in minority rights.
We come back to the moral argument; it is about cruelty. All civilised societies must draw a line somewhere. Yes, a minority of people are interested in pornography. Presumably, a minority of people are interested in further lowering the age of consent. We have to make decisions as to where the lines are drawn.
I conclude with one story from my favourite riverbank, part of the countryside that I know and love and in which I spend a lot of time. Will someone explain to me how, if hunting is allowed to continue, we shall have the opportunity to see the otters that are being released back into our riverside environment? Is someone going to tell me that a pack of hounds is capable of distinguishing between a mink and an otter? It is not. Such a suggestion is nonsense.