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Mr. Baker: For the record, I tell the hon. Gentleman that I wrote to each chief constable to ask the cost of policing hunts in the year 1999-2000. About a third of the forces replied, and the total for each was £542,854--not an insubstantial sum.

Mr. Prentice: The House will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supplying that information.

This debate is not about the slippery slope, angling, shooting, insects--astonishingly, we heard about mosquitoes earlier--birds, the whale population or all the sentient creatures in God's universe, but about what is in the Bill. All the other tactics are merely diversionary and intended to take us off the main argument.

Mr. Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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8.15 pm

Mr. Prentice: I must make a little progress, but I will give way because I am interested to hear the exponent of the third way--[Interruption]--the middle way. That was a Freudian slip, because I was about to refer to the main exponent of the third way--the Prime Minister. I am a great fan of the Prime Minister, and all Labour Members breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief when he stuck to his principled position, which he set out two years ago, and did not move because he is a man of principle. That should encourage hon. Members on both sides of the House to vote for option 3.

I like being candid--not unkind, but just candid--so I have to say that I was disappointed in my good friend and constituency near neighbour, the Home Secretary. I withdrew my amendment to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, because the Government promised to introduce their own legislation, and, in the euphoria, I referred to the Home Secretary as a hero. That heroic phase was just a passing one, but I still like him and we get on well together. However, the middle way, which the Home Secretary supports, is chasing moonbeams.

I am a student of the third way and of the middle way, and it is amazing that after two and a half years' cogitation, trying to square the circle, the middle way did not have an answer on hare coursing. What did the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) say a few moments ago? I jotted it down, because that is the sort of person I am. He said that we still have some way to go. Can hon. Members believe that hare coursing is still work in progress?

At least the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) came up with some sort of solution. I paraphrase him, but he suggested that hare coursing should be allowed in those parts of the country where there are hares and banned where there are none. The middle way may be short of money but it is not short of intelligence, so why cannot it find a solution?

Mr. Öpik: I find that attack extraordinary. I have already made it clear to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey)--I sometimes like to think that he is also my friend--that we have tried to take an honest approach throughout, and I said that there had been division and concern about hare coursing in the Middle Way Group. Furthermore, does the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) not remember that I gave him credit for causing us to focus on that issue? If he continues to lambast us simply for trying to have an honest and open discussion, having taken a tentative position on our schedule, I shall be disappointed because I thought he would be more generous than that.

Mr. Prentice: This is really touchy-feely politics. We all like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). We get on well together, but when I posed a simple, direct question--

Mr. Öpik rose--

Mr. Prentice: Hang on a minute. I asked what practical difference the middle way regime on the regulation of hare coursing would make.

Mr. Öpik rose--

Mr. Prentice: I will not allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene. The answer was that he still had some way to go before working out a position. He must stop pointing to the Bill; we have all read it and we know what it says.

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The Burns report said that hare coursing was

As I said, the little hares that hop about do not eat meat or harm anyone, but the hare is a threatened creature. The Conservative party introduced the biodiversity action plan, which included a target. I thought that Labour Members had fixations about targets, but the plan included a target for the little spring hare, jumping about. It was that the spring hare population should double by 2010. We are thus supposed to be doubling the hare population, but at the same time some hon. Members condone the killing of hares--which are not pests or vermin--for fun. That usually excites a response from the Conservatives, but let me say it again--for fun.

Mr. Hayes rose--

Mr. Prentice: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again.

We are talking about killing for sporting or recreational purposes, and that is not on.

Why am I voting for option 3?

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prentice: I know exactly what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going to say. He has intervened on me before, but I want to make some progress because many of my colleagues want to speak.

I am voting for option 3 because hunting is cruel. That is not a difficult concept to grasp. Some people, including eminent people such as scientists, say that it is not cruel. The Times published a letter on 20 December last year which many of my colleagues will have read. It was written by Dr. L. H. Thomas of Smiths Cottage, North Heath, Chieveley who is the secretary of Vets for Hunting, a group that I did not know existed. He said:

in this case, a fox hunt--

the foxes--

There we have it. He went on to say:

I do not know how these scientists divine such information--

Can hon. Members believe that?

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said that it would be wrong for us to bestow human traits on animals. We are not doing that. I am concerned about what we as humans do to animals. I believe that we should treat animals with respect, but I do not think that they are prototype humans. The Burns report, which we have all read, concludes that there are more humane alternatives. Shooting foxes--lamping--has not been dreamed up by the League Against Cruel Sports. It was official Government policy when the right hon. and learned

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Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) was Minister of Agriculture and running the show at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The official line was that if there was a problem with the fox population, the fox was shot. That is also my view.

We hear much from self-appointed people who speak for country men and women. Apparently, no Labour Member speaks for them; it is something that the Conservatives do. The hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend), in a most astonishingly racist speech, gave the impression that he and people like him speak for country people. Well, they do not. I represent a constituency with a large rural collar and speak for many country people. I do not, however, take it upon myself to stand here and say, "I speak on behalf of everyone in the countryside", because I do not. I speak for people who share my point of view, as many people in the countryside do.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) spoke about the abolition of the hunt changing the face of agriculture. I allowed myself a wry smile, because the hon. Gentleman--and I like him too--was an Agriculture Minister in the previous Government. That Administration changed the face of agriculture--not irreversibly, we hope--by advocating the common agricultural policy and intensive agriculture. During the Conservatives' stewardship, 158,000 km of hedgerows were ripped out; yet they come here and lecture us, and people outside the House, that they are the guardians of the countryside, but they are not.

We will all--each individual Member of Parliament--vote according to our own lights. No one is pulling any strings as far as I am concerned. I believe that hunting's time has gone; it has passed. When we ban hunting, people will just have to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and get on with their lives. I urge my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to vote for option 3.

Mr. Paterson: It is a great pleasure to speak for the first time with you, Mrs. Heal, in the Chair. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), but I shall try to be more concise.

There were two demonstrations in Parliament square today that involved horses: one was a horse-drawn hearse on behalf of Harefield hospital, and was attended by several hundred people; the second was a demonstration about hunting. One really has to question what the general public thinks is the most important issue. It is extraordinary that we are using parliamentary time on hunting when there are so many other issues--such as crime, police and hospitals--that we could be discussing. However, here we are tonight. I have not spoken on the issue since I had the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). I shall try to make a few brief points on detail, as the Minister invited us to do.

I represent North Shropshire, where four packs of foxhounds, two packs of beagles and a pack of mink hounds operate. I hunt, and my family has hunted for many years. I am probably a definition of hell on wheels for the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington).

Following the Burns report, Labour Members have a duty to produce an overwhelming reason why the ban should go through, because Burns does not prove cruelty.

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That is the fundamental point. Hunting has taken place in this country for 200 years. As a result, we have the most healthy and sustainable fox population in western Europe. Therefore, I will be supporting clause 1, but I could not support it if Burns had given conclusive proof that hunting was cruel.

People who go hunting are decent and honest. It is clear that they go hunting for entertainment, but they would not go hunting if conclusive evidence proved that an alternative method of culling foxes was less cruel. However, the Burns report says that none of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. That is a great understatement. Hunting works with the seasons. Every hon. Member has missed that point. Apart from the six or seven days that a pack of hounds visits an area, foxes are effectively protected, which allows for a sustainable population. Every other method that has been mentioned would lead to the indiscriminate killing of pregnant vixens, cubs down an earth and healthy mature foxes.

Burns tentatively recommends that lamping could be the most effective method. Obviously, a marksman--I have yet to meet a marksmen in the country, although I have lived there all my life--in broad daylight, with a rifle, in good weather conditions, would probably kill a fox outright.

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