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Mr. Banks: The "Powerhouse" poll asked whether members of the public would support strict measures of control, which sounds attractive. Unfortunately, however, the Middle Way Group's proposals contain no such measures. In many respects, the public were deceived and continue to be deceived by the middle way proposal. The hon. Gentleman said that the proposal is gaining resonance with the public, even though only a small number of Members of Parliament came together, but how many hon. Members now support the middle way, all these years later? He has given us numbers before, so what are the numbers now?

Mr. Öpik: We are small, as I have said before, but we are perfectly formed. The loss of Alun Michael was a brief disaster for the organisation, but we replaced him. We have never had an enormous resource in terms of people--

Mr. Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way, as he mentioned my name?

Mr. Öpik: I said Alan Clark--the right hon. Gentleman is clearly having an identity crisis. [Interruption.] Okay, I must have said the wrong thing. Such is the impression that the right hon. Gentleman has made on me in our proceedings. I intended to refer to the late Alan Clark, not to the un-late right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael).

The Middle Way Group has maintained the statutory number of members that is required to make it an all-party organisation. It has done so with small resources.

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The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) asked a fair question in that respect. One of the most surprising things about the group's progress is that it has had very little money and a small team--of course, that team tends to turn up in the Chamber--but has gained increasing public support. Indeed, we heard just now about the evolving support in the constituency of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor).

The hon. Member for West Ham made another interesting point about strict regulation. We can argue about whether the Middle Way Group's proposal provides sufficiently strict regulation, but is not such regulation different from a ban? If the hon. Gentleman is now saying that he is willing to discuss regulation, however strict, rather than a ban, the Middle Way Group is at least beginning to make substantial in-roads into a debate that has appeared previously to be a black and white issue. That is testimony to the fact that the debate has never needed to be as polarised and emotive as it has been until now.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Given that the Middle Way Group had two and a half years to cogitate on hare coursing, why did the manifesto that it circulated to all hon. Members contain no proposals on that activity? What practical differences would the regulatory regime proposed by the hon. Gentleman make to hare coursing? Will he deal with that point?

Mr. Öpik: Yes. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will hear me explain the detail of the proposal. If he is not satisfied with those comments, I shall happily give way to him again. I point out now, however, that it was he who caused the Middle Way Group to revisit its position hare coursing. We did so for the simple reason that, as he rightly pointed out, we needed to maintain a consistent approach. Indeed, we have welcomed such feedback. Unlike Deadline 2000, which has sometimes failed in this respect, the Middle Way Group has genuinely tried to take on board suggestions, whether they have come from hon. Members, the public or elsewhere. That has been one of our strengths, and has added to the quality of our proposals.

6.30 pm

We are trying to offer a pragmatic solution. We have considered the history of animal welfare legislation and, in that spirit, we are trying to achieve a solution rather than a victory. Option 1 offers a form of self-regulation, which more or less happens now. The hon. Member for West Ham advised us that we should not vote for it. We shall consider his views, and inform him of our decision when we vote. If we do not vote for option 1, the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that, once again, we have listened to a Labour Back Bencher. At least Liberal Democrat Back Benchers are listening to Labour Back Benchers, even if no one else is.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): My hon. Friend is not speaking for the Liberal Democrats today.

Mr. Öpik: I am sorry. Let me stress that I am speaking on behalf of the Middle Way Group, not the Liberal Democrats. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) did that earlier.

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On option 3, we understand the aspiration for animal welfare, which we respect. I respect the hon. Member for Worcester, who is not in his place, and the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) because they have a genuine interest in the subject. However, I believe that option 3 will not achieve the desired result. Literature that the League Against Cruel Sports sent out recently described option 3 as,

Most assessments suggest that more foxes will be killed in a potentially crueller way if option 3 is accepted. I shall return to that subject later.

We set up our organisation out of anxiety about the proposals by the Countryside Alliance and Deadline 2000. Our proposals are based on four factors. First, all three key organisations accept that, in some circumstances, foxes need to be killed because they are pests. That is crucial. The question is not whether we kill foxes, but how we do it. In that context, we must compare killing a fox by using dogs with the alternative methods. Lord Burns emphasised that point in paragraph 48 of his report.

Secondly, we assume that Lord Burns was correct when he said that killing a fox with dogs was not necessarily more cruel than the alternatives if done according to specific criteria or codes of practice. That finding is at the core of our proposals.

Thirdly, we believe that civil liberties must be taken into account. The difference between the Middle Way Group and the other two organisations is that we attach more value to animal welfare than those who support the Countryside Alliance and more value to civil liberties than those who support Deadline 2000.

Mr. Hayes: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to consider civil liberties, let me point out that those of us who care passionately about the welfare of wildlife are worried about the alternatives that he describes. Labour Members, especially the hon. Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), seem to have missed the point that shooting, gassing, trapping or snaring are not only cruel but ruthlessly efficient. They would wipe out, for example, the brown hare population in my constituency and throughout Britain. Despite the views of the hon. Member for Romford, that also applies to foxes and the whole integrated wildlife population in the countryside.

Mr. Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman says, passing option 3 will not save the life of a single fox. On balance, the fox population will decline for the reasons that he gave: other ruthless techniques will be used.

Fourthly, we must not legislate on the basis of the motives of those who hunt. We cannot create legislation based on what we believe is going on in other people's heads. I would not make criminals of people simply because I found their motives distasteful. We must focus on the impact of people's actions, not their thought processes. Totalitarian regimes attempt to legislate for what people think. I do not accuse Labour Members who support a ban of attempting to create a totalitarian regime, but their approach is dangerous in a liberal and democratic society.

Mr. Hogg: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not outlaw activities on the ground of motive.

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Does he also agree that we should not outlaw them because, subjectively, we find them distasteful? There are many activities that we would find distasteful or wrong, but we would not wish to outlaw them through the criminal law.

Mr. Öpik: I voted to equalise the age of consent for that reason, and I believe that we need to show tolerance on other matters. If we legislated on motive, or on finding matters distasteful, as the right hon. and learned Member said, some people would want to ban fishing, shooting, falconry and angling as well as eating meat. All those activities involve pleasure for the human at the expense of the animal. We do not have to eat meat to live; we choose to do it. On other animal welfare matters, enjoyment is not a factor when considering a ban.

Jackie Ballard: Does my hon. Friend support legislation to protect domestic pets and farm animals from deliberate cruelty?

Mr. Öpik: Yes. As my hon. Friend knows, I am keen to ensure that regulation in farming is effective. However, that is regulation. We have not yet banned eating meat in British society. We protect the welfare of the animal even though it is ultimately killed for human enjoyment. We have made that point many times.

The libertarian concept of respecting and honouring our responsibilities to the animal kingdom in a balanced way is at the core of the Middle Way Group proposals.

Mr. Hancock: How will the middle way proposals be policed during a hunt? When the fox is caught at the end of the hunt, how will the cruelty that currently occurs be prevented?

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