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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) says that he has not heard Labour Members advance a moral argument. Cruelty to animals is a moral issue--I am speaking slowly so that he can follow my reasoning. The law defines cruelty to animals as the causing of unnecessary suffering. The question is whether hunting with dogs--foxhunting, hare coursing and stag hunting--causes unnecessary suffering. The hon. and learned Gentleman must wrestle with that concept. I have already settled it in my own mind.
The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) made a curious and eccentric Conservative party conference speech, before flouncing out without having the courtesy to listen to the next speaker. He said that we were introducing the Bill to garner votes in urban areas. Many people follow and support the Pendle Forest and Craven hunt in my constituency. If I lose the votes of constituents because I advocate a ban on hunting, that is politics. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) said, we go through life constantly drawing lines in the sand on issue after issue, to show that we will go so far, but no further. However, the middle--or muddled--way group try to have it every way. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) talked about cherry picking. If anyone has done that, it is the people who advocate the middle way. I shall deal with them in a moment.
The official Opposition should make their position clear. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), their Front-Bench spokesman on this issue, was asked several times whether they would repeal the Bill if it reaches the statute book. The latest edition of "Livin' Country", the publication of the Union of Country Sports Workers, quotes the Leader of the Opposition, at a side meeting during the Conservative party conference, as saying:
Mr. Prentice: The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not speak for the official Opposition--or perhaps he does: the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) may have to look over his shoulder.
Mr. McNamara: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for me to draw your attention to what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said from a sedentary position about the leader of his party--
Mr. Prentice: Labour Members, and some Conservative Members--such as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)--are going with the grain of public opinion, and we have overwhelming support. In a debate in June, one of the foremost proponents of hunting, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), conceded that an overwhelming majority of people disapprove of hunting with dogs and want the practice stopped.
The poll that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire shows that there is a majority in favour of the ban, but that the proportion has dipped below 50 per cent. Some 48 per cent. want a complete ban, 37 per cent. want tight regulation, and only 14 per cent. want the status quo. If the people who want tight regulation are not satisfied with the regulation, they might move into the camp that wants a complete ban. It is our job to persuade them to do so.
The people who do not need persuading are the younger generation. Only 10 days ago, I went to Barrowford county primary school and addressed an assembly of a couple of hundred children aged between four and 11. I told them that I would mention them in the Chamber of the House of Commons. We were discussing animal welfare issues and I asked how many wanted hunting banned. Without any prompting, a forest of little arms went up. Only two or three did not want it banned. That is a typical response. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members, who are chuntering in their usual way, spoke to young people in the primary schools in their constituencies, they would not find a majority in favour of continuing the killing for fun. They should believe me.
Mr. Prentice: The argument is not about town versus country. A poll in The Daily Telegraph, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) alluded, showed that 77 per cent. of rural dwellers-- I represent a constituency with a big rural collar--are against hunting with hounds.
The issue is not one of Labour versus the Conservatives, although it is often posed in such a way. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and the hon. Member for North Thanet are not the only ones who want hunting with dogs to be banned. What about Steve Norris, the standard bearer for the Conservatives in the London mayoral elections? What about the astronomer, Patrick Moore? He is against hunting. What about your predecessor, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the previous Parliament, Dame Janet Fookes? They are all leading Conservatives who want hunting with dogs to be banned.
What about the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? It is not a nest of rolling-eyed lefties. It is a blue chip organisation, of which millions of people are members. Who is the patron of the RSPCA? It is Her Majesty the Queen, is it not? The RSPCA has written to us to say:
I am a keen student of the third way, but I have been looking at the comments of the Middle Way Group, which was set up two and a half years ago. I went to its pamphlet for guidance on what it suggests, but it gave me no help.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and I appeared on the Lucy Meacock programme on Granada Television on 2 November. Apparently, millions of viewers in the north-west tuned in to see that duel. After being prompted by a member of the audience, the hon. Gentleman told Granada viewers that the Middle Way Group did not have a policy on hare coursing. Apparently, it has a policy on hare hunting, and there is a difference. The group has sent a manifesto to everyone, and as I read it, I saw a little drawing of the hare. The Middle Way
Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) referred to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It has been at the forefront of the argument that drag hunting is the perfect alternative. It argues that we could carry on hunting in our red coats--if anyone still wears them--and that hunting horns could still be blown. It argues that there could be the same numbers of hounds--there is no need to put them down--followers and horses, that all social activities that revolve around the hunt could continue, that jobs will be retained and that everything will go on as before if a drag replaces a fox.
The matter was discussed in the Burns inquiry. I was one of three witnesses invited by Lord Burns to speak on behalf of drag hunting. The inquiry's examination of drag hunting was exemplary. We sat in a square. The inquiry team sat on one side, expert advisers on another, those of us who gave evidence on drag hunting and a representative of the National Farmers Union--who, incidentally, agreed entirely with us and we agreed with him--sat on another and representatives of the RSPCA and others against hunting sat on the fourth side. They argued that what we did could take the place of hunting. I hope that hon. Members have read the Burns report of that encounter. There can be no doubt that the inquiry came down on our side.
Moreover, the RSPCA hauled in some expert on drag hunting who said that we did not know what we were doing here in England and that we ought to go to Germany where they were much more efficient. The poor inquiry team flew over to Germany for a day to see some drag hunting, but returned none the wiser.
Matters are, however, much worse than that. Although hon. Members support drag hunting, some of us have considered the outcome for our recreation if foxhunting comes to an end. Yesterday, I discussed the future with my counterpart--the chairman of the other organisation that represents drag hunting--who authorised me to speak on her behalf. We cannot expand. Our problem is that we do not help farmers at all; we are their guests.
Most packs of drag hounds can hunt for only 24 to 25 days a year--once every weekend in the winter months. Most packs cover the same amount of country as seven, eight or nine packs of foxhounds. One difficulty is that ours is a purely equestrian sport. Our followers see very little of hounds working, but they want lots of obstacles to jump over. Those who manage packs of drag
There are now very few natural obstacles in the countryside. There are a few hedges, but we have to trim most before we can get over them. A little simple arithmetic shows that the average pack of drag hounds requires 300 to 350 obstacles to be built for the season, but we cannot do that, given our limited resources. Our average field is about 30, more than half of whom are women and children; perhaps only 10 or 15 are men and therefore physically able to build the fences and do the necessary work. They all have jobs to do.