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Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): This is foreign territory for me because I have never spoken on this subject. [Interruption.] My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor), is clearly in an ebullient mood. To give hon. Members the flavour of my constituency, I can say that it is largely rural, and it has one beagle hunt and the Meynell hunt, which of course caused the heir to the throne a mishap a few weeks ago. I am not sure whether that accident happened in my constituency, but it appears that it was roughly in that area.
Like my hon. Friend, whose constituency is very similar to mine, I have found that opinions are not bitterly divided. They are broadly the same throughout the rural areas, the small town and the fringe of Derby that I represent. A possible exception are the most rural hamlets to the west of Derby, which, based on my correspondence and contacts, might contain a slightly higher number of people who support hunts.
Rational points have been made about the precise application of this law. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), although I did not agree with everything that she said. In my constituency, too, people pursue rodents using dogs, and we must address the need for a precise definition of when one may use one's dog and of how one controls a dog in pursuit of a rat if it goes underground or on to someone else's property. I do not want to make people involuntary criminals by passing this law.
I have found it difficult to take part in a debate such as this because the debates that tend to appeal to me consist of clear, coherent philosophies that I can grasp, and the positions taken by those who defend hunting and by those who oppose it often contain incoherencies and inconsistencies that are difficult to defend. I am regularly confronted by those who know of my position as an opponent of hunting and who point out that there are many other examples of cruelty to animals and, indeed, to human beings that society appears to accept, and yet we act in this case. My answer tends to be that I am certainly an imperfect human being and that the perfect is often the enemy of the best possible solution that we can achieve. As human beings, we often have to tolerate inconsistencies.
I have listened to much of the debate, and I listened carefully to the arguments about civil liberties, which were well expressed, and for the need for hesitation, if not a halt, to any step that reduces an individual's liberty to carry out his normal activities, which are currently legal. It has been clearly stated that liberties are not absolute. We regularly restrict the liberties of our citizens to do things that may cause harm to others or to our environment and wildlife, which are of course unable to represent themselves in the Chamber. Examples have been given of laws passed to prevent cruelty to animals. Those are all infringements of liberty.
I do not belittle the fact that the third option would reduce liberty, but considering it in the light of other decisions, I do not regard it as a step change towards a dictatorial society. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) implied that a ban would be akin to an act in Nazi Germany. I do not find that resonance in the issue, although, as a ban may reduce an individual's liberty, it must clearly be reflected on. However, it would be a reasonable step because for a long time, and certainly during the past century and a half, the House has
Mr. Hayes: As always, the hon. Gentleman is making a considered contribution. On the last point, does he acknowledge that the shift in opinion since the matter was first debated in the House a couple of years ago has, if anything, been towards greater tolerance of hunting? Does he accept that, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) was honest enough to admit in his contribution, there has been a shift towards the view that hunting should be allowed to continue in some form or another?
Mr. Todd: No, I am not sure that I do, to be honest. I have listened carefully to the debate, and I although I hope not to speak for too long, I shall come on to the steps that we need to take to deal with the serious issues. Defences of hunting have been given on which, I must admit, I have had to reflect carefully. However, I do not think that there has been a substantial shift of opinion in favour of hunting.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Over the past 30 years I have been involved in Bills of this nature. Is my hon. Friend aware that long before the previous general election there was a huge shift in attitudes towards hunting in the House and the community as a whole? In order of priority by which people would ban hunting, hare coursing is top, followed by deer hunting, which Conservatives Members have not mentioned, and foxhunting.
Mr. Todd: I do not doubt my hon. Friend's word. It would hardly be right for me to advise the advocates of hunting, but in their position I would have sought some time ago to discard certain, utterly indefensible hunting practices, so that much more of the ground on which they stand could be defended. Their tactical stance has instead been to make a brazen defence of every practice, however unjustifiable. To that extent, they have been their own worst enemy throughout much of this debate, but that is for them to judge. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) gesturing--I do not know whether he wants to intervene, but I was not casting aspersions on him.
The nub of my argument is that, because it is possible to knock down on philosophical grounds the arguments that have been presented by both sides, in the end I have to make my judgment on pragmatic grounds. That is where I stand. The Burns committee provided useful information, but we should remember that it sought to do no more. There has been a tendency to wave the Burns conclusions in all directions, but we should be careful. In fact, the committee was instructed not to advise us on how to legislate on this matter. It sought instead to provide intelligence--sometimes a rare thing--and useful information on which we can base our judgments.
From that, I draw certain conclusions, the first of which is that, in some parts of the country--not all, by any means--the fox is a significant predatory pest that causes damage, mainly to farm stock. We must accept that fact and think carefully about how to deal with it.
Thirdly, in some instances, terrier work and work underground has produced appalling examples of damage--certainly to the fox and occasionally to the terrier. One Opposition Member referred to the mistaken comparison with practices such as bull baiting and badger baiting, wherein a confined animal is attacked by human beings. Such practices are comparable to the work of terriermen following hunts. In the east midlands, the outcome of many hunts is that the fox goes to earth and is dug out and killed with dogs. That strikes me as similar in many respects to practices that have previously been banned by Parliament with general consent.
Fourthly, hounds do not always kill foxes rapidly. The idea that a pack of hounds descends on the fox and death is instantaneous is a myth. Speeches by Labour Members have demonstrated that a quick death is not always the case. Sometimes foxes suffer an appalling and barbarous death. One cannot blame the foxhounds--that is what they are bred to do. It is human beings who have developed that process and we have to be aware of that.
On employment and job losses, useful information has been provided. The precise numbers have been bounced around this Chamber, but as someone who cares about every job that is lost, speculation as to whether 8,000, 12,000 or a mere 800 jobs will be lost serves only to trivialise the issue. To the individuals concerned, each job is a job lost. I do not necessarily defend the activities in which those people are involved, but at the moment they are legal. If we choose to legislate according to what the majority considers an appropriate way to control mammals that cause problems, we must have some consideration for the rights and future employability of such people.
It is also possible to exaggerate the impact on employment. Many people in my constituency ride horses--from time to time, I allow neighbours to keep horses in my field. Horse culture appears to be a thriving part of the local economy. The dramatic statements that were made about the abolition of hunting leading to the death of horse culture were ridiculous exaggeration. To be honest, my impression is that a large proportion of the horse-riding population in my constituency takes no part in hunting activities. They choose to enjoy the pleasure of the Derbyshire countryside on horseback and I am hardly going to blame them for that.
We must ask how we can ensure that the economies of very isolated communities--Burns identified a few--that are highly dependent on hunting activities would cope with the abolition of hunting. In arriving at a judgment--as I shall tonight--that hunting should be abolished, we must recognise our responsibility to those whom we would thereby put out of work. Their small--often, extremely small--communities would be substantially damaged by the loss of a currently legal activity.
I want to see the key elements reflected in the work of the Standing Committee that will consider the Bill--I am not bidding to sit on it, but, with respect, I am advising those who will--and implement the total ban, which I am sure will be introduced, with my support. First, we need
Secondly, an important element is that of reviewing the effectiveness of other means of control of foxes in certain areas. The point has been well made that there is a shortage of highly trained marksmen to carry out the task. That should be our concern. If the main thrust of enacting the Bill is to improve animal welfare, it would be wrong to disdain the issue of how that control should be exercised in future. More reflection is required on whether assistance is needed to improve the quality of training of those who exercise the duty of control in the countryside. Perhaps we should consider funding for that purpose in some instances.
Thirdly, there is the targeting of aid to certain communities. We should not cast aside that responsibility to the citizens involved, however much we may disagree with what they have chosen to do legally until now.
Finally, we should consider whether it is adequate to rely on various activities being used as a defence against prosecution. I have read the Bill with care. It will be a defence against prosecution if it can be demonstrated that someone was carrying out certain activities that by implication, but not explicitly referred to in the Bill, were legal.
Some useful points have been made about the control of rats, and how that exclusion would work. As someone who has never defended the mink as a native species of the United Kingdom--I am well aware of the impact that it has on wildlife--I would want to consider how it should be controlled. There is more detailed work to do. I commend the Standing Committee that considers the Bill to undertake that task with rigour.