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16 Dec 2002 : Column 597—continued

Mr. Peter Atkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew George: I will not give way any more. I am concerned that other right hon. and hon. Members will not be able to speak, so I will bring my comments to a close.

The Bill will need strengthening in Committee. I will support amendments brought forward by others—and, if necessary, by me—to strengthen the Bill so that there is a presumption that hunting is banned and applications are made for lawful, effective and efficient pest control.

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

Andrew George: I will not give way any more.

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Clause 48 provides an opportunity for future Secretaries of State to introduce regulations—not primary legislation—that would substantially amend the legislation. The Minister and the Government should consider the clause carefully and amend it so that primary legislation will be required for any such changes.

The Bill sets a number of challenges. The Minister has put himself in the political equivalent of a leper colony and seems to have alienated many of his Back Benchers as well as Opposition Members. However, I take my hat off to him for his bravery and commitment, not to mention the time that he has put into this. I hope that he will be as receptive in Committee as he has already shown himself to be and that he will accept reasoned and reasonable amendments that would strengthen the Bill in the manner that I have described.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

7.2 pm

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on his speech and the position that he has adopted. I look forward to the contribution that he will make in Committee.

I welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to bring this matter to a conclusion—provided, of course, it is the conclusion that I and the majority of Labour Members want. I will be supporting the Bill's Second Reading—it is not perfect but it is the vehicle that will deliver what I think the House and the country want. The Minister has made a brave attempt to find common ground on both sides of the argument—sufficient to let it pass through both Houses of Parliament. I fear, however, that he will find very little accommodation to this approach in the other place.

I intend to let my right hon. Friend know of my concerns about the approach that he has taken and suggest three ways in which the Bill could be amended to keep it within its existing form and structure. However, I warn him that if these amendments were not to be made, there is a serious risk that more substantial amendments will be tabled.

The Minister outlined two tests—to prove the utility of hunting and that the alternative methods of culling are less humane. I am confident that in all probability, from what I have seen, read and experienced, the hunting of fox, deer, hare and mink would fail both tests. This is where I disagree with my right hon. Friend. His approach risks becoming a lottery for cruelty. We will not know which hunts can carry on and which cannot. This is a matter of conscience. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House hold very strong views, and it is no secret that I want hunting to be banned. I believe that it is my duty to vote accordingly, and to vote to make it happen, not to pass the buck to an unelected body to make that decision. Parliament is elected to make the difficult decisions—the tough choices. I do not want the House to be undermined in this matter of conscience.

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Using the Burns report, as my right hon. Friend did for the basis of the Bill, I suggest that the following three areas should be amended. First, the Burns report concluded on hare hunting:

Notice how Lord Burns put hare coursing and hare hunting together, as he did when he considered the manner of the hunt and the kill. He said later in the report:

He said in the following paragraph:

Lord Burns reached exactly the same conclusion for hare hunting and hare coursing. I suggest that hare hunting should be included in the Bill and banned outright.

Gregory Barker: Does the hon. Gentleman think that shooting, poisoning, gassing or snaring any quarry would seriously compromise their welfare?

Mr. Foster: That is self-evident. I assume that the hon. Gentleman knows that gassing and poisoning foxes would be illegal. As for shooting, Burns makes it clear that lamping has fewer adverse welfare implications than hunting with dogs.

I would also like my right hon. Friend to consider the activity known as cub hunting. The Countryside Alliance gives three reasons for the existence of cub hunting. It says that some 40 per cent. of foxes killed by registered packs are killed during cub hunting, it disperses the fox population and introduces young hounds to hunting. Burns concludes:

The report continues:

that is, assuming the status quo prevails—

I would like to pursue that issue at a later stage in the Bill.

The third issue that I wish to consider is the practice of lowland foxhunting. The overall contribution to traditional foxhunting is relatively insignificant in terms of the number of foxes killed. Burns makes the distinction between lowland and upland hunting:

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I would like to explore the distinction between lowland and upland hunting later in the Bill's passage. However, I warn my right hon. Friend of the inconsistency that terrierwork will be included in the Bill but lowland hunting will not. That issue needs to be addressed.

Lembit Öpik: Am I right in understanding that, on the basis of the evidence that we have both seen, the hon. Gentleman accepts that in some upland areas hunting with dogs may not be the most cruel way in which to control the fox population? I am not trying to trick him into saying anything about lowland foxes.

Mr. Foster: I am always wary of the tricks that the hon. Gentleman might play. When I introduced my private Member's Bill in 1997, I exempted the flushing out of foxes to be shot in upland areas because of the distinction between the pest control method used in upland areas, such as in parts of Wales, compared with lowland hunting.

I have been involved in both the hunting Bills since 1997 that have had their Second Reading. Both were full of promise but also full of uncertainty because of the time and the opposition that they faced. The Minister can do the House a great favour by clarifying that the Bill will be brought to a conclusion and that the other place should take heed of that. Members of this House were elected and our views should ultimately prevail. In the words of the odd poster or two that I have seen today—listen to us.

7.9 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): In my 20 years as a Member of Parliament, it has been my privilege to speak in every debate on hunting. However, I do so today with a genuinely heavy heart as, despite all the Government's protestations to the contrary, it is clear that they are determined to destroy hunting and following that, both shooting and fishing—[Interruption.] Noises from the Government Back Benches show that my assertion is correct.

It shows a perverted and grotesque sense of the ordering of the Government's priorities that, at a time when the British economy is reeling from the worst trade deficit in goods since 1697, when the pensions of millions of our fellow citizens are affected by a deeply serious crisis from which the Government appear to want to run away, when, after all the Government's fine and wholly unbelievable talk, the public transport situation is catastrophic, and when they have lost their way in dealing with immigration, health, drugs and crime, they seek to introduce such a draconian Bill. It shows a want and a lack of proportion, and a misunderstanding of the feelings of ordinary people that is wholly astonishing.

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