Mr. Banks: It seems to me that continual pressure on vermin is the way to deal with them, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, those who support hunting do not want foxes to be eliminated. That is why, for example, foxes were introduced to the Isle of Wight and why certain hunts put carcases out to feed foxesthey need the sport.
The idea that foxhunting is an effective method of fox control is nonsense. Only about 5 per cent. of foxes are dealt with through the hunt and most are killed on the roads. Indeed, we would probably be better off issuing the hunts with four-wheel drive vehicles so that they can run the foxes over. For me, this is a moral issue. I cannot understand how anyone takes pleasure from killing a wild animal, and the aspect of bloodlust fills me with detestation.
We have made clear in the Chamber how we feel, and it is about time that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench respected that. I have a lot of time for my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is a man of great compassion, and I know that he wants foxhunting abolished. The fact is that our manifesto said that we would bring the matter to a conclusion, but we can reach a conclusion only if the will of the House of Commons as expressed in a vote is respected.
I do not understand what the Government are frightened of. The issue is not about town versus country and I have received a large number of letters, as other Members have, clearly from people in rural areas who abhor foxhunting. Indeed, the most recent opinion polls, taken in late January, suggest that a majority of the public favour a ban on foxhunting, hare coursing, stag hunting and mink hunting. Do not forget: this issue involves not only foxhunting, but all those other creatures. No one could call stags and hares vermin or pests.
With such a majority, what are my Government worried about? Is it the Countryside Alliance? Frankly, they should not worry. Most of its members are die-hard Tories who would not think of voting Labour even if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister formed the Downing street hunt and went into the royal parks to get hold of foxes.
Let me say something about the middle way. There is no middle way. We cannot compromise on cruelty. We cannot have some system of Queensberry rules whereby an animal can be ripped to pieces and that is okay. It is totally unacceptable, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister does not come back with a recommendation, following a change of opinion in the House of Lords, that we should accept the middle way. I am sure he will not. Why would the House of Lords change its position and go for the middle way? Because the middle way is hunting by another name. That is all it ishunting with a bit of bureaucracy. Quite honestly, that is totally unacceptable to us.
We will face an electoral backlash, and I recommend that my right hon. Friend the Minister read the many hundreds of letters that I have received from people who say, "This is a matter of good faith for the Government." He must bear that in mind. I trust that he will look after us and I hope that he does not become the political equivalent of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, because he has suffered from that in the past. I want him to prosper and do well. The best way to achieve that is to recommend to the Prime Minister that we bring back the Bill that the House passed and the House of Lords rejected.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I have never taken part in a debate in the House on foxhunting, but we have debated it so frequently in recent times that it is necessary for me to give a word, at least for the benefit of my constituents.
I have not changed my mind, although I have the greatest respect for those who have over the years. I have always voted against a ban on foxhunting and I have always made it perfectly clear to my constituents on both sides of the argument that I oppose any attempt to ban it. I feel that it would be particularly wrong to invoke the criminal law against people in my constituency who take part in the three hunts that enter it in their traditional pursuit of foxhunting, unless some compelling public interest reason can be found so to do. It is the use of the criminal law that would most appal me.
I find myself allied with the majority of people who have spoken on this side of the debate so far, when I single out the one thing that places me on this sidemy instinct. The more I listen to the debate, the more I believe that most people on both sides are reacting by instinct when making their personal judgments. No doubt they are doing their best on the subject on behalf of their constituents. My instinct is on the side of a liberal and tolerant approach to society. I agree with all who have said that it should be the aim of the House, in setting the laws for society, to encourage the greatest possible degree of tolerance of a wide variety of lifestyles and customs, and we should hesitate strongly before we intervene against that.
The remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), with whom I have often debated, were particularly wide of the mark. I do not know whether he was trying to comfort himself by saying that those in favour of foxhunting were somehow akin to those who have been against every other social reform of the last 200 years. I have always been against capital punishment, and on the side of liberal divorce reform. I regard myself as a liberal social reformer. It is absurd of the right hon. Gentleman to say that the invocation of the criminal law in these circumstances is somehow akin to all the enlightened liberal reforms that have been supported on both sides of the House over the last three decades, and which will, I hope, continue to be so supported.
I sympathise with the difficulty of the courageous Members on both sides of the House who are out of touch with their party majority on this issue, as I suspect that I am out of touch with the opinion of the majority of my constituents. I do not deceive myself on that. There are three hunts in the rural part of my constituency; one third of my constituency is suburban, and two thirds are rural. I suspect that, if an opinion poll were held there today, there would be a majority in favour of banning foxhunting, although I am encouraged by the way in which the national opinion polls appear to have been moving recently, as people face up to what is involved in the issue.
The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said that there was an enormous majority in favour of a ban in his constituency. With the greatest respect, we do not make the criminal law on the basis of opinion polls. A majority of 9:1 could be in favour of a ban in my constituency, but I would not regard that as conclusive, and I hope that we never would. That would lead to the intolerant attitudes to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has referred. If we start having opinion polls about all the unpleasant and distasteful habits and customs of some members of society, and suggesting that their findings should be made part of the criminal law, foxhunting would come way down the list, and quite a lot of strange enactments would have to go through the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made a brilliant speech, and, as usual, I admire her courage. I have to say to her, however, that we tolerate polygamy in this country. We do not allow polygamous marriage, because of our views on the family and because we do not think that our civil law should encourage the legal formation of polygamous
The criminal law should be used only with great care, when someone's behaviour is not only something of which the majorityor any of usdisapprove, but is doing positive damage to the legitimate interests, property or well-being of other citizens, or doing great damage to society. That is the reason we do not normally use the criminal law in areas of this kind.
Of course, we use the criminal law in relation to animal welfare. This is a matter of judgment and degree. I entirely support the continuance of the ban on bull baiting and badger baiting, because they involve capturing an animal and placing or tethering it in a confined position for the purpose of setting up a bloody fight with dogs, on which people bet or from which they take a certain amount of satisfaction. We regard that as so distasteful and disgusting that it damages society to encourage its prevalence. These are matters of judgment, however, and it is frankly bizarre to leap straight from that standpoint to the banning of the countryside method of foxhunting as part of the cull of foxes that has to take place.
This is relevant not only because foxhunting is traditional, although that is important, but because it takes place in the setting that it does. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has already mentioned the natural setting, and people's enjoyment of it. I take a great interest in conservation, and in bird watching. When I support the protection of the peregrine and the hen harrier, I am in favour of inhibiting "man the hunter". I think that it should be a criminal offence to shoot such birds, because society is impoverished by reducing their numbers. We therefore encourage their numbers to grow. They are, however, fairly deadly killing machines when they attack some of the other birds that I watch. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and everyone who understands nature knows that many animals are predated upon, and that they, in turn, predate.
In the context of conservation plans, however, we do not have a natural environment any more. We have a man-made environment in this country. We have to manage even the nature reserves that we preserve, and we have to cull. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds often has great difficulty explaining to its members that it really has to cull that Walt Disney-like little duck, the ruddy duck, because it will otherwise damage other, rarer species. Foxes have to be culled, and I find it impossible to draw a judgmental line that involves saying that it is all right to carry on shooting and gassing themand that it is all right to do that to rabbitsbut that it is uniquely unacceptable for people to hunt, in a traditional way and in a natural setting, an animal that hunts in the same setting itself by pursuing and killing its prey.
We should not be allowed to make criminals of the perfectly respectable, civilised people who take part in hunting. They are law-abiding, decent citizens. I do not hunt, but they are people who would not understand why they were being classed with the criminals of Vauxhall if they were subject to a law such as this. Many of them
This measure is being driven through largely for the benefit of the prejudices of the Labour party, and being handled in a ridiculous way by dragging it out and by making us vote and vote again until we all become good people and vote in the moderate way that lets the Government off the hook. It is a bizarre way of proceeding, and a parliamentary majority, even of this size, should not be used in this intolerant and unfeeling way. We should vote on the side of reason.