Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire):
Yesterday--on an infinitely more important issue--we had a debate that changed Members' minds. Arguments were listened to, competing viewpoints were respected, and name calling was largely avoided. My purpose in speaking today was to express the hope that the same degree of intellectual honesty might be displayed in this debate. Sadly, I have so far been disappointed. I do hope that that process can yet be changed.
I preface my remarks with a tribute to the Under-Secretary, who is leading for the Home Office on the Bill, and to his officials, who have been working very closely with our fellow members of the Middle Way Group on drafting schedule 2, which represents with great clarity the views of the Middle Way Group. We are deeply grateful to them for all they have done, with great even-handedness and fairness.
Sadly, even-handedness and fairness have not always characterised this debate. I have to say to my friends, typically on the Opposition Benches, that the supporters of hunting too often pretend that there are no problems with hunting. The enemies of hunting dismiss the arguments about human freedom and claim animal welfare gains for a ban--gains that simply do not exist. I believe that both those viewpoints are wrong.
There is a middle way--a compromise--that could settle this argument once and for all. My plea to the House is that anyone who wishes to cast a vote next month, when the three options come before us, should first settle down and read, or re-read, the Burns report. It is not perfect--given the ridiculously short time that Lord Burns had to conduct his study, it was never going to be perfect--but it is a very good report indeed.
There are issues in the report that I believe were incompletely explored. For example, a year will not be enough to ease the impact on the hounds that will become redundant in the event of a ban. The conservation of the fox as a species and the role of hunting in conserving the species were not explored in sufficient depth by Lord Burns.
However, I believe that overall the Burns report can be considered our bible in this debate, and in that respect I quote from Lord Burns's opening letter to the Home Secretary:
This is a complex issue that is full of paradoxes.
Chief among those paradoxes is the question of the welfare of the fox. Banning foxhunting will not save the life of a single fox. Indeed, it will--in Worcestershire and
20 Dec 2000 : Column 432
in most of England at least--lead to more foxes dying more painfully. That is a truth that those who would support option 3 must understand.
It is likely that, in the event of a ban on hunting, many farmers and landowners would resort to a greater degree than at present to other methods to control the numbers of foxes . . . None of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. Both snaring and shooting can have serious adverse welfare implications.
Yes, it is true that Burns's tentative conclusion is that lamping is to be preferred, but it is a heavily qualified conclusion:
Our tentative conclusion is that lamping using rifles, if carried out properly and in appropriate circumstances--
I emphasise that proviso--
has fewer adverse welfare implications than hunting, including digging-out. However, in areas where lamping is not feasible or safe--
I think here particularly of Wales--
there would be a greater use of other methods.
Burns says of lamping:
It is worth noting . . . that lamping has its limitations. It can be time-consuming, is not always suited to the terrain and night shooting can give rise to concern on the part of those living in the area.
So I am afraid that those who hold out lamping as a panacea to address this issue are simply wrong and are misleading the public.
The point is that we must not cherry-pick Burns but must read it in its entirety. An issue on which it has been spectacularly cherry-picked is that of drag hunting. I am speaking with the chairman of the drag hunters, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body), sitting in front of me. Burns says about drag hunting:
Drag and bloodhound hunting are different from live quarry hunting.
I am sure that my hon. Friend might wish to explain that difference to the House if he gets the chance.
Burns concludes--I ask the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to note this conclusion in every particular--
It is unlikely that either drag and bloodhound hunting or drag coursing would of themselves mitigate to any substantial extent any adverse effects on the rural economy or the social life of the countryside arising from a ban on hunting.
It could not be clearer than that.
Sir Richard Body:
Since then, masters of the two drag hound and bloodhound organisations--there are a large number of us--have reached the conclusion that if foxhunting is abolished, it will be the end of drag hunting, too. If I catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye, I hope to explain why.
That is another of the complex paradoxes in this debate that I am afraid have not been studied in sufficient depth by critics of foxhunting on either side of the House. I hope that they will listen with great attention to what my hon. Friend says on that point.
Of course the Burns inquiry could not consider moral issues, and the moral issues are central to this debate. There are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said in his excellent opening speech, only
20 Dec 2000 : Column 433
two issues that count in this debate. They are both moral issues--animal welfare and liberty. All the rest are second-order issues. They are important--I am not saying that they are unimportant--but they are none the less second-order issues.
The Burns report could not comment on the moral issues, particularly on liberty and freedom, but it illuminates that debate too. Let us hear what Burns said about rural communities:
It is clear that, especially for participants in more isolated rural communities, hunting acts as a significant cohesive force, encouraging a system of mutual support. Farmers and other landowners--many of whom feel increasingly isolated--are both the linchpins and the main beneficiaries of the system. Many of them also value hunting as an expression of a traditional, rural way of life and would strongly resent what they would see as an unnecessary and ill-informed interference with it. As a result it would increase their sense of alienation.
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon):
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am afraid that I have only four minutes left and the Middle Way Group has very little opportunity to make its position clear to the House. The time that a Member takes in replying to an intervention is taken out of the time allowed for the speech, so I feel that I must not give way. I am sorry; I should have liked to do so.
Last week, for the first time, an opinion poll showed a minority of the British people in support of a ban on hunting. Burns conducted opinion polls in areas where hunting is practised. He said:
Broadly speaking, support was highest in all areas amongst men, older people, those who had lived in the area for a long time, people working in rural occupations and those in lower social class bands.
I urge Labour Members--they are often motivated by class issues in this debate--to reflect very carefully on who they would most seriously affect if hunting were to be banned.
The research findings do not really support the claim that is sometimes made that, even in rural areas with a strong hunting tradition, there is much greater opposition to hunting than is generally supposed.
Burns destroys a lot of myths, and I urge Members on both sides of the argument to study the report with an open mind. Those who would criminalise foxhunters cannot now claim that they have overwhelming support on their side.
It is true that I believe that my constituents should be free to hunt; that is no secret. I know that many of them would admit privately that all is not well with hunting. Things do happen that have undesirable consequences for animal welfare--I agree with many of the things that have been said about terrier work in today's debate--for public safety, and for the right of individuals to prevent trespass on their land. Hunts do sometimes infringe the liberties of rural people. It is precisely these issues that the middle way's compulsory and tough licensing system would address.
Self-regulation is greatly to be preferred, but it is now too late for that. Tougher self-regulation 20 years ago might have prevented the debate from ever reaching this stage, but we are where we are, and Burns, looking at the practice in other countries, concludes:
20 Dec 2000 : Column 434
We consider that it might be productive, in the absence of a ban, to explore the possibility of introducing some form of licensing system, possibly on the lines of those which exist to regulate hunting in some other countries.
I make three pleas. My first plea is to the whole House: please read the Burns report, and the Middle Way Group policy document that every hon. Member has received, with an open mind before finally concluding how to vote, in January, on the three options. My second plea is that supporters of the status quo, which is what clause 1 offers, should consider whether their position is really tenable. Is it based on a true sense of political reality? Will we just go into the process time and again until hunting is finally banned? Does not the middle way offer a more stable solution?
My third plea is to the opponents of hunting. They should consider with open minds--I use that phrase again--what the real impact on animal welfare and human liberty will be and ask themselves whether there might not be a better way.
The Bill is a distraction from the real issues facing the countryside and the nation and is marginal to the real animal welfare issues, so I shall vote against it this evening. I expect that I shall lose that vote, but I shall throw myself with renewed effort into securing a more objective and better informed debate on the subject than has been the case so far.