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8.37 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): This debate reminds me of what the American baseball coach said: it is déjà vu all over again. Most of us have been here before and made similar arguments. There are some new elements, however, and I shall concentrate on them. I shall briefly summarise the central case that has been discussed and then consider compromise.

Most Members would agree on some basic principles. First, we should not frivolously ban sports merely because we do not like them. For instance, I would not ban boxing. I think it a degrading sport and I am against it, but the participants consent to it so it is not appropriate to make it a criminal activity.

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Secondly, most Members would agree that if a practice causes real distress to animals merely for the sake of sport, it is not frivolous to want to ban it. I refer to distress rather than to cruelty, because I do not think that most people who take part in hunts are motivated by cruelty in the sense of wishing to cause pain. They are motivated by a wish to enjoy themselves, and they accept that, as a by-product, the animals will be caused some distress. But we tie ourselves in knots if we talk about cruelty. I am interested not in the motivations of the riders but in the effect on the animals.

Thirdly, I believe that most hon. Members would accept that, if genuine distress is being inflicted, it is not right to do so merely for the sake of generating employment; otherwise a great many activities would be legal that are not legal today, and we would be horrified if they became legal.

Mr. Bellingham: Such as?

Dr. Palmer: Such as bear baiting and torture. No doubt, the manufacturers of torture equipment would be happy to supply it.

The opponents of a ban today have primarily concentrated on the argument that the alternatives would be worse. I draw their attention to three points. First, the Burns report, which we all happily cite when we agree with it, makes it clear that the Burns committee considered lamping an adequate alternative in most circumstances, with probably fewer welfare implications, and it makes an exception for uplands, where it thinks gun packs are necessary; I shall return to that issue.

Secondly, as several hon. Members have said, hunting is, in fact, only responsible for the deaths of 6, 7 or 8 per cent. of foxes. In all areas outside the Welsh uplands, hunting is not a serious contributor to the control of fox numbers, and the House will not be taken seriously if it argues otherwise; it is simply not the case. Thirdly, I note that the supporters of hunting have quietly tossed aside the arguments for coursing and stag hunting because, of course, neither hares nor stags are generally considered pests that need to be controlled. One gets the impression that, like the proverbial Cossacks being pursued by wolves, they are chucking coursing over the back of the troika in the hope of satisfying those in pursuit.

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

Dr. Palmer: No, I had better concentrate on the time.

The bottom line for me is the chase. Some hon. Members focus particularly on the kill, which I find distressing as well. We have to accept that there will be occasions when the kill is swift and occasions when it is less swift, and it will be particularly horrible in those cases. But for every fox killed by a hunt, a number of others will be chased and caused considerable, lengthy distress. Indeed, the hunts make a point of stressing that many foxes escape, especially the healthier ones. I spoke to a supporter the other day and he said that, in 40 years of hunting, he had seen only two foxes killed. If we were

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trying to deal with insect pests and succeeded in deterring one wasp every 20 years, we would not feel that we were using a very effective deterrent.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Palmer: No, I am sorry, but I will not.

The reality is that we are accepting something that is essentially a sport based on terror and painful deaths for animals. We hear about compromise, and I have to say that I am an inveterate compromiser. If I had been a Member of the House at the time of William Wilberforce, I might have been seriously tempted by a new deal for slaves—slavery with a human face. I can understand the temptation to split the difference, not to go too far and to find somewhere in the middle. However, there is a difficulty with the proposed compromise—either people can chase animals with dogs, or they cannot. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and I am grateful to him for sticking the debate out this long to hear my contribution.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Palmer: I had better not give way, because I have already said I would not.

By far the most sensible alternative for all hon. Members is to deal with the issue by simply reintroducing the previous Bill and finishing it in this Session. However, I have the sneaking feeling that the Minister may have a different view, and I want to give him some input on the kind of compromise that would tempt me. If the Government believe that there are areas where foxes are a serious pest—perhaps in the Welsh uplands—let them authorise gamekeepers to conduct culls when necessary. Further, if they think that it is sometimes necessary to flush out foxes with dogs in upland areas, as suggested by the Burns report, I can reluctantly accept that, as we did in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster).

My bottom line is this: a compromise that involves the continued existence of organised pursuit across the countryside and of causing terror and death through a chase is not a compromise. I would vote against it regardless of the number of lines on the Whip and I believe that the majority of hon. Members feel the same way. If we wish to dispose of the problem, as the Government have rightly said, ultimately we shall have to push through the same Bill as we put through last year.

8.45 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Plaid Cymru did not want a free vote tonight. We hoped that our amendment would be chosen so that we could have a whipped vote on the constitutional relationship between the National Assembly and this place as regards hunting and agriculture. Although the Assembly was not granted all powers over animal health, significant powers were devolved to it to deal with agricultural matters, and it is right that it should decide the matter in Wales.

The National Assembly voted to ban hunting. It undertook its own study of the effect of the different options on Wales. I hope that whatever happens, the

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Minister will see fit to consult the National Assembly and consider the evidence that its Agriculture and Rural Development Committee took on hunting in Wales.

The debate has been good and some contributions have been most useful. I found myself agreeing with much of what hon. Members on both sides of the argument have said. In particular, I agreed with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) when she said that it was right for the House to address and legislate on the subject if it thinks it wise to do so, although the idea of whether something is wise raises problems of its own.

I also feel strongly that we are discussing a compromise. Not even the ban in the previous Bill would have led to the complete cessation of the killing of wild mammals. It simply dealt with killing wild mammals in certain way. Rats, for example, were not included. I do not know what the difference is between Basil Brush and Roland Rat, but the Bill certainly made such a distinction.

I also think that the timing is nakedly cynical. The Government are in trouble, whether it is Tony Blair cosying up to Italian fascists in Barcelona—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language when he addresses Members of the House.

Mr. Thomas: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course the word "fascist" is in order, but the Prime Minister's name is not.

So whether it is that problem or the Prime Minister's relationship with Mr. Mittal, the purpose of the Bill is to reignite the socialism on the Labour Benches. They are socialist, red in tooth and claw, and nothing else is behind the Bill's timing. I know that the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) wants it to go through no matter what, but he must recognise that that is why it has been introduced now.

In the Animal Health Bill the Government created massive powers to slaughter animals because they were not prepared to face the reality of vaccinating against foot and mouth, so it ill behoves them and those Back Benchers who supported them—I certainly did not—to talk about animal cruelty and animal slaughter. For me there are only two absolute positions: either we accept a vegan's point of view and reject the use of animals for human purposes, or we accept that we use, eat and conserve animals, both wild and domesticated. I am firmly in the second camp and I have only to look at all right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber to know that the vast majority are also in that camp. I know that not from their faces or speeches, but from their footwear.

The question is the degree to which we deal with the problem. There is no doubt that we will continue to kill foxes no matter what form the Bill takes. The problem is how we do that. On considering that, my first principle is that we cannot allow and legislate for gratuitous cruelty, which undeniably happens in some hunts and in some forms of shooting and fishing. However, hunting is in an anomalous position. Without licensing, the hunt can go at it and hunt in any area that it wants, including places where it would be difficult even to stage a simple party. Hunting therefore needs a licensing and regulatory scheme.

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Secondly, we have to accept that the countryside is managed, and in England and Wales there is no real wilderness. The fox is the top predator in the countryside—there is no predator of the fox apart from man. In Wales, we have 5 per cent. of the population and 25 per cent. of the nation's sheep; indeed, we have 5 per cent. of the total number of sheep in Europe. The situation in Wales is different from England's, and that has been recognised in the Burns report and in the comments of the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer).

The Burns report found that terriers and hounds were involved in at least 70 per cent. of fox culling in Wales, which is very different from the 7 or 8 per cent. quoted by other hon. Members. The report concluded that in areas dependent on sheep rearing and game management there is no real alternative to using dogs for flushing out. The topography and afforestation of upland Wales mean that that needs to be taken into consideration.

The third principle is that we must legislate equitably. This is a central moral question about our approach to animal welfare in the House. Why should the hunting of foxes be banned, but not the hunting of rats, or shooting, fishing, vivisection and slaughter? There are moral gradations here and no moral absolutes. Of course, it is for the House to gauge where that moral decision lies, and we must do so in consultation with our electorate. However, I would argue strongly that it is hypocritical to say that foxhunting with hounds is in some way morally less acceptable than shooting, fishing or hunting other animals with dogs.

There is no moral gradation there, so we must ask why people are so upset about hunting foxes with hounds. If it does not stem from a class mistake—certainly in the Welsh context—I do not know where it comes from. I accept that there are Members who firmly oppose the killing of animals in the wild, full stop. However, the vast majority of Members are motivated by other thoughts, and there is no moral certainty in that.

There is, however, public distrust and disquiet about practices such as hare coursing. I am open-minded, but I cannot see an ecological or conservationist reason for hare coursing. I have similar feelings about stag hunting, although there may be a conservationist argument to be made. Certainly, there is an ecological reason to catch mink in the way that we hunt foxes.

There is disquiet also about aspects of hunting. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca–Davies) is a new Member of the House, but I understand that his position on this matter has not changed since he stood as a candidate in Brecon and Radnor, and he is to be congratulated on that. There are aspects of hunting that we need to address in legislation. It is not right that animal cruelty perpetrated by hunts should be accepted under the law as it stands. We have to bring those practices within the ambit of the law.

For me, there are two unresolved issues. We have to ensure that matters of welfare and any cruelty practised by hunts are examined openly, and that there is accountability for them. In my experience, the independent authority on hunting is not sufficiently powerful or interested to deal with the matter. We need a supervisory authority on hunting to be set up on a statutory footing.

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The second unresolved issue is conservation. I have heard nothing yet that convinces me that, in upland areas at least, hunting can be replaced by equally useful tools. I am open-minded about that too, but I have not been convinced.

The social aspect of hunting is important and cannot be ignored. For me, however, it is not in itself sufficient to justify the continuation of hunting. It has to be considered alongside conservation and welfare aspects. Nevertheless, the Government, who are responsible for the countryside as well as the towns, should remember that, post foot and mouth, the hunting fraternity, in all its manifestations, provides an essential social glue.

In conclusion, I think that the killing of animals and cruelty to them merely for sport are not justifiable. The killing of animals for human use, with safeguards that change from generation to generation and on which this House decides, is acceptable, as long as those decisions are made openly and in consultation with the electorate. Finally, it is acceptable to kill or control wild animals for the maintenance of the countryside and its population and for reasons of biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. In that context, the continuation of hunting with hounds under a statutory licensed authority is acceptable to me and, I think, to the majority of my electorate.

Hunting should therefore be allowed: first, if it can be shown that the fox population needs to be controlled; secondly, if it can be shown that the countryside environment is maintained or improved by that method; thirdly, if deliberate acts of cruelty or interference in the hunt are outlawed. Those are the three principles that should underpin any future hunting in this country, and they must be achieved by a statutory hunting authority.

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