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Mr. Bercow: So far, 28 right hon. and hon. Members have spoken in the debate. None did so better than my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), in opening for the Opposition Front Bench and speaking in his own cause. He was explicit in his support of the present arrangements. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) wisely pointed to the problems of enforcement that seem set to result from the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) sensibly underlined, as someone needed to do, the passionate support for hunting that, whether right hon. and hon. Members like it or not, exists and is

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pervasive in our rural communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) underlined the danger, at which hon. Members are unwise to skit, of a rural-urban divide. My hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Townend) highlighted the arguments for freedom.

From my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) we had a speech that was wise, shrewd and characteristic of a country dweller who knows about the subject on which he speaks. I was especially pleased to welcome back to the bosom of the Committee my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). My only problem with him, one with which I will seek to assist him, is that he has a dangerous habit of understating his case.

I have two hunts in my constituency--the Bicester hunt with Whaddon chase and the Vale of Aylesbury hunt. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury made his position clear. I shall follow suit and make mine explicit. I shall vote, and with gusto, for option 1. I shall, if pressed and with some reluctance, support option 2, and I shall vote against option 3 with pride coursing through my veins for the simple reason that it is unjust, unfair, improper and a chronic waste of the time of the Committee.

In this debate--there have been dissenting contributions of which the contributors can be justly proud, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)--there are certain central arguments, the first of which is about cruelty. Despite the fact that we seek to magnify the differences between us, there is consensus between landowners, farmers, gamekeepers, conservationists and, belatedly perhaps, even political parties that the fox population needs to be controlled. The question is not whether it is to be controlled, but how to do so. As Burns rightly observed, none of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty. Whether one deployed gassing, snaring, shooting, trapping or even lamping, problems would abound.

Lamping is not a practical proposition in upland areas. It is extraordinarily difficult to envisage how at night it can be expected that that method will distinguish between a healthy young vixen and a mangy old fox. The truth is that it would do nothing of the kind. In respect of hunting, however disagreeable the fact may be for right hon. and hon. Members whose prejudices are well established and unlikely to change, Burns emphasised that in the vast majority of cases the time between insensibility and death is no more than a few seconds.

So the simple reality is that the welfare case has not been made. Hon. Members seem to think that if, with sufficient frequency and venom, they spout the mantra of animal welfare and the need to prevent cruelty, that will somehow make their case. They ought to realise that there is a distinction between argument by advocacy and argument by evidence. There is plenty from them of the former and precious little of the latter.

I confess that I am inclined to salivate about the liberty argument. The reason why I get excited about liberty is that as a Conservative and a believer in the individual citizen, I regard liberty as a determining feature of my philosophy and so do my right hon. and hon. Friends. I make the point now which should not need to be emphasised, but under this Government more than ever does, that one of the curses of our times is the progression from the observation, "I do not like" to "It should be

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banned." That is not a wise, obvious or logical progression. It is not a progression that is worthy of or does credit to a mature parliamentary democracy.

9.45 pm

I happen to believe that the problem with most Labour Members--it does not apply to them all, and certainly not to the Minister for Sport--is that they greet with blank incomprehension assertions based on the principles of liberty. They do so because most socialists do not believe in liberty, and the best that they can do is to believe that they believe in liberty. That is not the same thing at all.

If those Labour Members want to have their way, are hell-bent on doing their worst, and are determined to criminalise a whole section of the population, they can, of course, do so. However, to display the indifference, disdain and rank contempt for other points of view and for the pursuit of an alternative life style, as Labour Members have done tonight, is deplorable in a free society. If people want to hunt, they will hunt. Wealthy people in particular will go to France, Spain, Sweden or Italy and hunt if they wish to do so.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people stand four-square in support of hunting, but do not engage in the practice. As Labour Members know, I hail from the wing of the Conservative party that pays mortgages and buys its own furniture. I went to a comprehensive school, I use the national health service and I do not practise country sports. I have never done so and have no desire to do so, but I defend passionately, consistently and without apology those who exercise their liberty to do so.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bercow: I give way to my hon. Friend. How could I resist?

Miss McIntosh: The prospect of my hon. Friend salivating is obviously intensely pleasurable.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the prospect of an action being brought in a local magistrates court in this country for a breach of civil liberties under the European convention on human rights?

Mr. Bercow: Such an eventuality is plausible. I do not find the prospect particularly attractive, but it might prove necessary. It would be a crying shame if the House of Commons so reduced itself that, instead of protecting liberty by its own decisions, it ended up having to tell members of the great British public that they had to look elsewhere for their protection.

Option 1 proposes an independent supervisory authority comprising people with real expertise, proven dedication and a track record of knowledge, commitment and care. Option 2 would, I fear, be expensive and complex, although I do not sniff at the motives of its proponents. I believe that they deserve respect. However, I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) will understand when I say that the problems of the option that he adumbrated were made ever clearer as he progressed through his speech, which lasted for more than 25 minutes.

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

Mr. Bercow: No, I will not.

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The third option is to criminalise, to use the full force of the law to arrest and charge people and even, ultimately, to put them in prison if they do not pay their fines, simply because they do not subscribe to the principles of Labour Members and dare to live their lives according to different ones. We are witnessing from Labour Members--we see it clearly at this time of night, 9.48--nothing but a triumph of intolerance. That is sad, miserable and deplorable.

In present circumstances, legislating on hunting displays the most astonishing perversity of priorities. There is a crisis in the countryside--the worst of its kind for 60 years--in which every agricultural price is down, suicide rates in the farming community are up and a real sense of despair exists as to whether there will ever be better times ahead. Class sizes are rising, the fight against crime is weaker, our transport system is more congested, the millennium dome is a fiasco and an obscenity, yet we have a tranche of Bills on licensing, consumer affairs, vaccines, referendums and mental health. Each and every one of those Bills has been regarded by the Government as less important than the pursuit of this abominable, politically correct fetish of criminalising those people with whom the Government and Labour Back Benchers happen to disagree.

The Bill is wrong; it is untimely and illiberal. The Bill stinks to high heaven and the great majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends will vote for option 1. They might suffer option 2, but they rightly loathe, despise and will vote against option 3.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I never thought that I would hear the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) described as politically correct. Furthermore, to describe one's boss as intolerant is bizarre, but I suppose that from time to time we, too, have described the right hon. Lady as intolerant.

This has been a good debate--[Hon. Members: "Where is your boss?"] I can easily say that my boss is someone who will always consider the seriousness and reason of debate--sometimes he comes to the right conclusion.

The subject of hunting arouses emotions on all sides of the debate. That has been reflected in today's proceedings, but we also saw a greater degree of seriousness and concern as to the rationale of the arguments. That is one of the benefits of the Burns report and the Government's decision to set up that inquiry. The Government have introduced the Bill at this time because we made a manifesto commitment and the measure fits within our overall programme.

The development of the debate has been extremely good. Several valuable contributions were made today. The hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) made thoughtful speeches in support of their point of view.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) support the middle way--again, I almost called it the third way. My hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) put strong arguments.

I draw special attention to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington. He said that the prospect of people with rifles walking around a national park in Cumbria should be considered seriously by the

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advocates of those who were thinking of voting for a ban. We must consider not only our overall view of the matter, but how we might deal with any difficulties that might arise. That is a lesson not only for those who may vote for the third schedule but for all those who may vote for each of the schedules.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made a strong argument. He used his speech to complain about crime and police numbers--he who, from 1993, presided over budgets that cut police numbers by 1,500. Over the whole period of Conservative Government, crime doubled.

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