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Mr. Savidge: Did my hon. Friend find a slight incongruity in what the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) said? Having argued that there were better things for Parliament to do, she then said that if she ever got back into power and there was a ban, the first thing she would do would be to legislate to reverse it?

Mr. Pickthall: That is a highly theoretical and unlikely eventuality.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickthall: I hope that I get some injury time for giving way to the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Winterton: What I said has been misrepresented. I said that the sovereignty of Parliament was the issue, and that the House can decide in the future, if it so wishes, to undo what this Parliament has done. It is a constitutional issue.

Mr. Pickthall: The hon. Lady makes her own argument.

The contention that Parliament can do only one thing at a time induced a letter from a constituent, who chastised me for trying to get rid of hare coursing while there was still crime on her estate. Crime is still committed on her estate, but that is like my telling her not to clean her windows because her garden needs digging. Parliament deals with dozens of issues at the same time. It is worth remembering that in the five years since Labour came to power, the House of Commons has spent only three days discussing hunting, although 25 of us have spent rather more hours in Committee. I shudder to think how many days we have spent discussing crime, health and the other big issues of the day. Moreover, the parliamentary timetable is hardly overstretched at present, thanks to the timetabling, of which I heartily approve.

The third argument used is that these are country matters, as Hamlet might have put it. The debate on hunting has successfully been elevated by pro-hunters into a bogus country versus city stand-off—I give them credit for that—whereas polls consistently show a high level of anti-hunting feeling among rural as well as urban citizens. In the letter that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) helpfully put around today, he says that this issue concerns

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I have no means of knowing how many active hunt supporters are urban dwellers who are out for some jolly fun in the countryside at the weekends or on their days off.

Since coming to this place in 1992, I have taken a consistent interest in ending hare coursing, partly because a major event, the Waterloo cup, takes place in my constituency, partly because the vast majority of my constituents demand that I see to it that it is ended, and partly because it is in my view the most horrible of all blood sports. It is a spectator sport, and the hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) described it perfectly. Hares are torn to bits. They are not pests, but that is done to appease a peculiar lust among a largely urban audience for the Waterloo cup. The question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle was never answered. If coursing is done just to turn the hares and to score points, why are the greyhounds not muzzled? The answer to that question never came.

In recent years, it has been suggested in pro-hunting circles that hare coursing could be offered as a sacrifice to save other blood sports. The spin since last week, which has been confirmed tonight, suggested the same thing, but added stag hunting as another sacrifice. It has been put to me, even by friends, that I should accept that to ensure the end of hare coursing. That is not good enough, and it is not logical. The same cruelty is involved in all blood sports: the cruelty of human intention and the cruelty experienced by the hunted and attacked mammal.

All hunting of wild mammals with dogs is unacceptable to me and, I believe, to most of my fellow citizens. The killing of an animal is justifiable only if it is done for food or to protect people, other creatures, property or crops. If we have to kill animals, it is incumbent on us to do it as humanely as possible. Killing animals for pleasure is little short of sub-human.

I began with a comment on human rights, and I shall end with a variant on the same theme. What makes hunt supporters assume that they have the right to do what they wish to animals, and to kill them by whatever means they fancy? Those mammals do not belong to the hunters. If they belong to anyone, it is to all of us: to the community as a whole; to the many, not to the few. They certainly do not belong to the tiny minority who want to destroy them vicariously with dogs.

8.15 pm

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): In view of the fact that many points have already been made, I shall not gallop too heavily over the ground that has been covered. Knowing the paranoia in the House about declaring an interest, I shall begin by declaring that in my youth, when I was younger, fitter, stronger and faster, I went on the odd hunt, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a good burn up across the countryside, and we went over the odd fence and hedge. Catching the fox was secondary: it was just a good day out, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A cost-benefit analysis of hunting would show that it is remarkably inefficient and expensive. It is said that it is enjoyed by people from all walks of life, but I have to say that it leans towards the more wealthy rather than towards the poor.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Page: No.

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I shall not take up the religious-spiritual argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), but I agree with him that there is a fairly high jealousy quotient. That is why so many Labour Members are against the activity.

As a number of hon. Members have said, hunting is a matter of the quick and the dead. The fox is either caught or it gets away: there is no halfway house. A constituent wrote to me last week arguing that I should vote against hunting and get it abolished, because a cull of foxes could be achieved by the painless, quick rifle shot. As someone who has shot in most disciplines, I can tell the House that when one is lying on one's stomach in Bisley with a sling round one's arm to hold the rifle steady, it is hard enough to hit the target on the right spot even when it is obligingly staying still. Foxes do not stay still. They move with remarkable rapidity. No shot can achieve the clean, quick painless kill.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said about other methods of killing foxes. I do not know whether any hon. Members have seen snares or poison being used. Shooting, snaring and poisoning do not measure up to the clean sport of hunting in which the fox is either dead or alive.

It is interesting that, as more and more people get to know exactly what is involved in this issue, the percentage wanting to keep hunting is going up and up. This debate has shown that certain hon. Members need to have their education broadened. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) is not present at the moment, but he asked why hunting does not take place all year round. It is quite simple. Foxes do not know that they should not go into growing crops. If we could train them not to go into growing crops, we could hunt all year round, but farmers get upset about foxes going into growing crops, and that is why there is a hunting season. People can shoot all year round, but hunting takes place only at certain times of the year.

I must make another announcement. I have the privilege of being the joint chairman of the all-party racing and bloodstock committee. It is a position of immense influence and power, and one that I thoroughly enjoy.

There have been many comments about the wide range of associated activities that are involved in and depend on hunting. One such is point-to-point training, which is absolutely vital for national hunt rules and racing. Anyone who looked down the Cheltenham race card last week would have seen the names of many horses that came into national hunt racing through the point-to-point route. I shall not labour the point, but getting rid of hunting would mean getting rid of point-to-pointing and reducing the number of horses that take part in national hunt racing. People who suggest that drag hunting would provide an alternative are completely and utterly wrong.

We all read in the media over the weekend about the idea of introducing some form of licensing, and I see the sticky fingers of No. 10 all over those comments. I have no objection to licensing—it would be a good thing. We just heard about certain practices that are engaged in by certain of the hunts. Those practices should be banned and the law should be able to take action against the hunts that use them.

If, as I hope, we take the licensing route, the basic terms of the licence must be spelled out in primary legislation, not introduced by regulations. Right hon. and hon.

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Members who experienced the progress of the Child Support Agency legislation will remember that when we were asked to vote for a Bill to chase parents who were not fulfilling their obligations towards their children we all said yes and it went through without a ripple. But when we saw the regulations that emerged and the way in which the CSA was operating I, for one, held my head between my hands. My surgery and local advice centres, like those of every other Member of Parliament, were full of people complaining about the operation of the CSA. It is much better now, but when it was first introduced it was a nightmare. I therefore hope that if the licensing route is chosen, we will see the basic terms of the licence in primary legislation or, at least, be given an idea of what it will entail, so that we can consider it when the Bill passes through the House.

The licensing route is the right one to take. Let us put this matter to bed, get it off the Floor of the House and start to concentrate on matters that are far more important to the country, such as the national health service, schools, transport and housing. Let us get on with the things that matter.

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