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8.23 pm

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on hunting. It is the first time that I have done so, although the subject has been discussed on the Floor of the House on two previous occasions.

I give my support to all hon. Members who have spoken in favour of a total ban on hunting with dogs and reiterate the point that although there are three options for us to vote on, we really have only two choices—in favour of hunting with dogs or opposed to hunting with dogs. I do not accept that licensing or regulating hunting in any way is acceptable—the status quo may as well prevail.

I have no hunts in my constituency, but I do have foxes. I sometimes see them near my house in the early hours of the morning or near the marshes late at night when returning from Westminster to Great Yarmouth. I have also seen many foxes lying dead on the road or by the side of the road having been killed by vehicles. That saddens me, but nothing saddens me more than contemplating an animal being chased by a pack of hounds accompanied by people on horseback.

As leader of my local authority, I had the unenviable job of having to give permission for a fox to be shot by a marksman. I shall explain the circumstances. In the nesting season, Great Yarmouth has one of the largest tern colonies in the United Kingdom on an area of marram on our north beach. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds fences it off to stop people accidentally treading on a nest or frightening the birds away, and an RSPB warden oversees the area. Approximately seven years ago, the warden informed me of the destruction of a substantial number of terns' eggs by an animal. Evidence suggested that it was a fox that had been sighted more than once.

The solutions available were to trap or shoot the animal. I opposed the latter, but on further discussion it became clear that the fox was destroying a number of eggs and something had to be done urgently. No one dared suggest that a hunt should enter the area. Given the RSPB's predicament, I reluctantly gave permission for a marksman to shoot the fox. Fortunately, it never returned; perhaps it had a sixth sense.

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There will always be times when we agree that a fox may have to be humanely killed. Even an animal lover like me understands that. However, I shall never understand the apparent enjoyment that the hunter derives from chasing an animal to exhaustion.

To my knowledge, there is no hare coursing in my constituency; the nearest hare coursers are the Waveney Harriers. Again, I must admit that I have not been to a hare coursing meeting, but I learned enough through talking to individuals who have witnessed the activity at first hand. I have also seen the usual video footage.

In the past century, hare numbers have declined dramatically, largely because of the advent of intensive agriculture methods. The Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales chaired by Lord Burns heard evidence for and against the practices that we are considering. It concluded that

Indeed, brown hares are the subject of a biodiversity action plan that aims to maintain and expand their population so that numbers double by 2010. Lord Burns also found that

In hare hunting, packs of beagles are used to chase hares to the point of exhaustion. The hunting season runs from September to March after some litters of leverets have been born. That means that some hunted females leave orphaned and dependent young. A single hare is chased until dogs kill it or it escapes. Hunted hares are beaten not by speed but by the stamina of dogs. The hare is worn down by a protracted chase, which provides more satisfaction for the followers, until it is simply overwhelmed by the hounds and killed.

Hunted hares are reluctant to leave familiar territory and will run in a large circle until worn down, caught and killed. The Burns inquiry concluded:

Coursing enthusiasts claim that when a hare is caught, it dies instantaneously from the bite of one dog. However, post mortem reports show that hares can die a gruesome and painful death as they are savaged by the dogs.

Mr. Gray: If, as the hon. Gentleman claims, the carcase is ripped to pieces by the dogs, how is it there for the post mortem?

Mr. Wright: Those carrying out the post mortem can tell that the hare has been stretched between two animals and killed by horrendous methods.

After the 2001 Millennium cup coursing event, the RSPCA arranged for the carcases of five of the hares killed in the competition to be examined by an independent vet. After the post mortem, the vet concluded that none had died instantly from a bite. All had suffered injuries before being retrieved from the dogs. From 1977-79, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare carried out 53 post mortems on coursed hares. None had been killed by a bite to the neck and several had to be killed by the handlers when they were retrieved from the dogs.

The Burns committee commissioned research into how hares are killed during coursing. It showed that only one of 12 coursed hares was definitely killed by the dogs.

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Of the remaining 11, five were killed only when the picker-up arrived and broke their necks, and in six cases the cause of death was uncertain. The committee concluded:

I have been made aware of threats against farmers and landowners who have attempted to prevent illegal hare coursing on their properties. Resentment of the landowner's attitude has been made clear, even to the extent of physical threats. Illegal hare coursing is widely condemned, but the only difference between legal and illegal coursing is the issue of the landowner's permission—the cruelty is the same. The Hunting Bill would provide a real means for the police to address illegal coursing and would deal with the issue of permission.

Finally, I want to turn to the debate that will be held in the other place tomorrow. I understand that there will be a report to this place after debates and votes have taken place in both Houses. The Government's view will be based on those responses.

We are currently considering the second phase of House of Lords reform. The Select Committee on Public Administration, on which I serve, recently examined proposals for that reform and took evidence. Nearly everybody commented on the need to protect the pre-eminence of the House of Commons, mainly because we are accountable to our electorate, but in this instance the pre-eminence of this place is contested because of the suggestion that the views of both Houses will be taken on board.

This is the third time that we have debated the ban on hunting. Furthermore, it has been mentioned twice in the Labour manifesto. The will of the people of the country is clear; the will of the elected Chamber is clear, so let us be clear that nothing less than a programme for the abolition of hunting with dogs will be acceptable when the Leader of the House makes his statement. I hope that that will lead to the reintroduction of the Hunting Bill.

8.31 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I shall be brief.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and I have a couple of things in common. She is in a minority on her side of the House, and I am in a minority on my side. I have great respect for what she said and for her right to say it. I do not share her views, although I agree with her that the House has more important things to discuss.

The House has more important animal welfare issues to discuss. Currently, the United Kingdom imports thousands of chickens, thousands of pieces of pigmeat and tonnes of veal bred throughout Europe and beyond in conditions that we would not allow in this country. That is being done to the detriment of our farming community, so when we talk in a holier than thou way about foxhunting and about animal welfare we should remember that there are priorities. I care passionately about the issue, but when it is set beside the tens of thousands of other animals that suffer and about which Parliament and the Government are doing nothing, a few hundred foxes almost pale into insignificance—almost, but not for me.

This charade tonight is a disgrace. This debate is a fig leaf, designed to cover the embarrassment of a rotten Prime Minister who has broken a promise. This Prime

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Minister has a tendency to blame the "last Government" for everything. Well, it was under the "last Government" that this Prime Minister promised on television that he would end the practice of hunting wild mammals with hounds. This Prime Minister has forgotten that he was also the Prime Minister in that "last Government".

The House of Commons has debated this issue under the Labour Government many times before and has made its decision plain. Let us not try to pretend—as the Minister for Rural Affairs did when he introduced the debate, in measured terms—that this is the Labour Government honouring a manifesto promise. That promise was broken by the Prime Minister in the last Parliament.

This debate is irrelevant. When we vote at 10 o'clock, most Members will vote against option 1; most Members will vote against option 2; and most Members will—as they have done before, and I will be with them—vote for a complete ban, because one cannot be a little bit pregnant. One cannot be not very cruel to foxes. One either believes that there must be a ban or that hunting is in order.

I respect the views—which I do not share—of my hon. Friends who believe that somehow the 6 per cent., 7 per cent., or, being generous, 10 per cent. of foxes killed by the hunt is a form of pest control, but it has already been pointed out that more foxes are killed on the roads. Foxes are killed in my North Thanet constituency. North Thanet does not have a hunt. The population lives on the coastal strip, but the overwhelming acreage of my constituency is rural and most of it is farmed.

There is no hunt in Thanet, nor is there a fox problem. There is no Tooting hunt, no Wandsworth hunt and no Clapham hunt, but we can see foxes on their streets at night. If we want to control vermin we should work out how to deal with that problem. The idea that foxhunting controls the fox population is arrant nonsense.

The debate is a fig leaf. It is a way of trying to get a discredited Prime Minister off the hook. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) said that the credibility of the Labour party is on the line. Yes, it is—because the Labour party has failed on health, failed on education, failed on transport and failed on animal welfare, on which it has delivered none of the promises it made before both the previous elections. The Government's record on animal welfare is pitiful. This issue should have been put to bed under the last Labour Government. This Government should have the guts to do the job and finish it once and for all.

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