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9.32 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I used to back a ban on hunting with dogs. I changed my view on the basis of observation, of talking to people, and of having the courage of my convictions not to try to put through the measures that I started with, but to try to win the arguments on the way that seems to be right. Far from criticising the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I think that the fact that he was honest and courageous enough to say that he has changed his mind is at the heart of a debate that relates to conscience. The general public are changing their minds. Soon, perhaps, the House of Lords will change its mind. What kind of Chamber is this, if it is not willing seriously to contemplate an alternative such as that put forward by the Middle Way Group, if that is genuinely in the interest of the welfare of the animals that we seek to help and protect?

Let us be clear—this debate is not about whether we kill foxes. All three options, including the ban option, acknowledge that it is acceptable in some circumstances

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to control—in other words, to kill—foxes. Even the Scottish ban makes provision for various loopholes allowing the use of dogs. So, let us be clear that this debate is about improving the welfare of wild animals in a context in which we still kill such animals. Crucially, Lord Burns accepted that point. He accepted that, in some circumstances, killing a fox with dogs was not necessarily the most cruel way of doing it. It seems strange, therefore, that so many speakers in this debate are using Burns to argue something different. We all know that an animal's welfare is compromised if it is killed. The question for all of us is whether there is such compelling evidence about this one specific method that we should criminalise the people who think that it is the most fair.

I do not support the status quo; nor do I agree with those who say that self-regulation has worked.

Mr. Savidge: The hon. Gentleman says he does not support the status quo. Am I not right in thinking that he has voted for it in the past?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman will find that I am voting against it this evening. Moreover, I do not see the relevance of his point to the philosophical and practical points that I am trying to make.

I have spoken to an organisation called Protect Our Wild Animals. I am indebted to, in particular, Anita Knittel and Penny Little for the time they devoted to discussing the issue with me, although I accept that they are implacably supportive of a ban. Such cross- organisation dialogue has helped the Middle Way Group to develop its ideas.

I know that I did not convince those two people, but they gave me a series of videos illustrating unequivocally the failure of self-regulation to do away with some of the harm and damage that hunts currently cause. Dogs killed on roads, dogs dead on railway tracks, the physical intimidation of individuals monitoring hunts and many examples of trespass were all on film.

Let no one pretend that the Middle Way Group is sitting here saying that the status quo is acceptable. By the same token, however, although I understand why people support a ban—because I once did myself—I no longer believe that it will deliver the welfare benefits that we all say we want to achieve.

Let us think about the contradictions. If welfare is the key issue, why are Members focusing on a method that, on their own admission, involves only 6 per cent. of fox kills? If the welfare of the fox is the primary concern, why are they not dealing with the 94 per cent. of kills that are carried out in other ways? If we care about animal welfare we must maximise the benefits of the regulations, and we will not do that by focusing on a minority pursuit. Let us also remember that the damage done by focusing on that minority pursuit is tremendously important to certain sectors of British communities, such as the fell packs and the mid-Wales packs. Lord Burns said explicitly that in those areas it is probably the best way in which to control the fox population.

People describe the middle way as a compromise. That ignores what we are trying to do. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said that it was not possible to compromise on cruelty. What an irony! As we know from the Scottish so-called ban, the ban option itself is the biggest compromise on offer. As I have said, it does

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not deal with the 94 per cent. of foxes killed by other methods; but, even more important, it would be forced to include various exemptions that would not be necessary in the context of regulation. That is why the Middle Way Group regards the middle way not as a compromise, but as a potential solution in all our interests.

Let me remind Members that we propose the establishment of an independent hunting authority with statutory powers to enforce a legally binding code of practice and tough penalties to ensure that it works. We want that to apply to all methods of fox control, not just one. Our proposal goes further than any other option in the Bill. [Interruption.] Shouting about it does not change the reality: the Middle Way Group has taken the issue very seriously indeed.

We also propose the appointment of inspectors—paid for by a licence fee—who could drop in unannounced on all hunts that must be licensed to ensure that the code was adhered to. Unlike a ban, the middle way does not depend on an overstretched police force to police the countryside. It would be manifestly ridiculous to imagine that it would have the necessary resources.

I ask Members to acknowledge—even if they have problems with the details of our proposals—that we have created a coherent and comprehensive policy. Not only do we seek sincerely to ensure that all wild-mammal control is regulated; we do not expect a police force to implement a policy that it does not even consider to be workable.

The idea has been tried elsewhere. There is licensing across Europe in many different ways. In Finland, for example, there is a sophisticated procedure that really works.

We have heard a lot about polls. Hon. Members will know that the Middle Way Group has consistently improved its rating in the polls on tiny resources: on five-figure investment compared with the seven or eight-figure sums that the larger organisations have invested. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) cited polls. He will know not only that 47 per cent. cite regulation as acceptable, compared with 53 per cent. citing a ban as acceptable—far too close a call to justify a ban—but that 64 per cent. said that it was not an issue that we should be discussing in Parliament.

If our ideas are so weak, why have four directors of the League Against Cruel Sports decided that we have a more acceptable proposal? If our procedures are so weak, why do so many independent arbiters, including two out of three vets, think that there should be something other than a ban in the interests of animal welfare? I bet it is because they understand what a ban means and how limited its achievements would be.

There is a public mood developing—not necessarily a public mood that hon. Members want to hear. It says, "Do we really want to criminalise honest people who genuinely think they are doing the right thing and that they are not imposing cruelty?" The Middle Way Group is looking not for victories but for solutions. Long after the foxhunting debate ends in this Chamber, we will be picking up the pieces of the results in the wider community. We have not been rich, except in our idea, which seems to have gained some resonance.

We do not ask hon. Members to feel a sense of victory or defeat—quite the opposite. We ask hon. Members to think sincerely about our proposals, to accept that,

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whatever they think the flaws of our idea are, we have tried to reach out to people on all sides and improved our proposals on the basis of that.

The Middle Way Group proposals may not be perfect but they are a genuine attempt to move the debate forward. Again, should there be a split decision between this Chamber and the upper House, we hope that hon. Members will do what the Minister said they should do at the beginning: have a constructive and positive dialogue towards a result. If we achieve that, we will have proved that conscience votes are exactly what they say: votes based on commitment and principle, not on personalisation and emotion.

The Middle Way Group stands up to be counted in what it has put forward. I hope that in the months ahead we can achieve something significant, something humane and something that is practical and fair, and that hon. Members will find it in their hearts to think about our proposals and to vote for them in the minutes ahead.

9.42 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I will be brief because hon. Members have come here this evening not to hear me but to hear the winding-up speeches and to vote in about 20 minutes.

I should declare an interest as well because I used to hunt a great deal. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton–Brown), I have ridden in point-to-points and under rules, and have had some winners, so he is not the only hon. Member who has won a race. I also own two bits of land across which the hunt comes from time to time.

I do not believe that this debate has anything to do with Labour's concern about the welfare of foxes, deer or hares. It has much more to do with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It also has quite a bit to do with Labour's concern about membership of the party. I saw a letter that was sent to Back Benchers from Millbank, which says:

of the Labour party

in the near future

so I do not think that this debate has anything to do with Labour's concern about the welfare of foxes.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, we should be debating issues that really concern people such as health, transport, education and housing. If I were to knock on 50 doors in my constituency and asked people what the top 50 issues were, I do not believe that hunting would crop up once. People are not that concerned about it.

In the past, the opinion polls showed a majority of people in favour of banning hunting, but the results are very different when the question asked is, "Do you want to criminalise and lock up the people who go hunting?" My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) spoke about recent opinion polls, as did the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). In an NOP Solutions poll only four days ago, 48 per cent. said that they supported hunting being made a criminal

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offence, and 49 per cent. said that hunting should continue. Of that 49 per cent., 22 per cent. thought that it should continue in its present form, and 27 per cent. supported licensing. In other words, 1 per cent. more were in favour of keeping hunting in one form or another, so I do not believe that there is an overwhelming demand to get rid of hunting.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) pointed out, there are other animal welfare issues that cause concern—issues such as experiments on animals, and welfare on farms and in slaughterhouses. Let us consider welfare on pig farms. I saw in the papers this weekend a story about the Labour Chief Whip in the Lords. On a farm that he owns, pigs were crammed illegally into tiny pens, where they had no room to turn round or lie down. Others were said to have died from heat exhaustion and related conditions. I tend to agree with Joyce d'Silva, the director of Compassion in World Farming, who said:

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