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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): This has been an excellent debate to which, so far, no fewer than 25 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed. Sadly, I shall not have the opportunity to respond to them all, but none spoke more cogently than my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who stressed at the outset that there was no compelling case for the Bill on animal welfare grounds, but that it poses a serious threat to individual freedom.
The cudgels were then taken up in a truly brilliant fashion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) in a penetrating and witty speech. [Interruption.] Labour Members might not like this, but they will hear it. My right hon. Friend exposed the Bill for what it is--divisive, unnecessary and proof of the sheer cynicism of the new Labour Government. He was ably followed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who rightly characterised the Bill as being based on crude populism and as a vulgar and misguided attempt to reignite a bogus class war which we should long have left behind.
Powerful speeches were made on both sides of the House. I compliment the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). I respect his knowledge, integrity and sincerity. I am sorry to say that I profoundly disagree with all that he said, but many hon. Members made good contributions--25 in total. The reality is that, in arguing the case on grounds of cruelty, the simple fact is that, as Burns acknowledged, all the methods of pest control are problematic; none of them is immune from criticism. The truth is that there is no compelling evidence that cruelty in foxhunting is any greater than in snaring, trapping, gassing, poisoning or shooting. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) might not want to know it, but the reality is that the Burns report, which I quote for his delectation, said:
Mr. McNamara: Will the hon. Gentleman now reply to the question that I asked the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)? If the Bill is passed and at some point the Tories return to office, will they seek to reverse it even on a free vote?
Mr. Bercow: I shall deal with that point fair and square. The hon. Gentleman wants to create the impression that opponents of the Bill will inevitably be defeated. I accept no such scenario. We will fight this Bill again, again and again at every stage. We intend to defeat it; it will not reach the statute book before the general election. My right hon. and hon. Friends, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), will ensure that we win the election and this sad, miserable Bill will die the death that it deserves. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make that point abundantly clear.
In common with so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have never hunted, I do not hunt and I have not the slightest desire whatever to hunt. However, for as long as I have breath in my lungs, I will defend the right of other people to hunt if they so choose. The curse of our times is the instant progression of too many people from the statement, "I do not like" to the statement, "It should be banned."
I shall risk embarrassing my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal whom I cannot readily see--[Hon. Members: "He is behind you."] There he is. I remind the House of the excellent speech that he made on 28 November 1997. His words on that occasion are firmly imprinted on my mind. He talked about the importance of tolerance and emphasised that tolerance is not about putting up with things one does not care about greatly. That, he emphasised, would be apathy, acceptance and neutrality. The test of tolerance is putting up with, and allowing to continue, activities of which one personally strongly disapproves. The reaction of Labour Members suggests that that concept is entirely alien to most of them.
The truth--we know it from many sources--is that hunting confers many significant benefits on our rural habitat and makes a real and valuable contribution to the biodiversity of our environment. We know, too, as a matter of fact that
Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify why he opposes not only a ban on hunting but even the regulation of hunting as proposed by the Countryside Alliance? As I understand it, he will also oppose Second Reading. That seems most mysterious.
Mr. Bercow: I oppose Second Reading, but it is a free vote. I believe that that which it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Meddlesome, silly, burdensome, expensive, interfering, nanny-state regulation is beloved of Labour Members. I want nothing to do with it, and I think that goes for most Conservative Members.
Let us be absolutely clear on this matter. Right hon. and hon. Members can push through the measure if they wish--no doubt they will do their worst--but they will not stop free Britons hunting if they want to. I make the point, which should be blindingly obvious even to Labour Members, that if hunting is banned it will hit not the rich
The truth is that as far as most--although I concede not all--Labour Members are concerned, the measure has nothing to do with animal welfare and everything to do with class warfare. We learned that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)--[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it; they do not want me to embarrass them by revealing the full ugliness of their colleagues' remarks, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North said:
Labour Members say that drag hunting is a substitute for hunting live quarry. That argument was demolished by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) and the deputy chairman of the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association, who said that drag hunting
Bills on licensing, consumer issues, referendums and vaccines have been ditched. Even the reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 has been excluded from the programme. Class sizes are rising, hospital waiting times are increasing and the fight against crime is weaker. It is totally wrong for the Government to prioritise and pursue a ban on hunting. This country is the home of Magna Carta and the birthplace of liberty. The rights of free-born citizens to continue to pursue their occupations should be upheld, as it will be by the great majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends.