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16 Dec 2002 : Column 600—continued

Gregory Barker : Is my hon. Friend aware that the latest polling evidence shows that only a minority of the public support a ban and that even that support has fallen to a 10-year low?

Mr. Soames: That is indeed wholly correct and offers further evidence of the foolishness of the Bill.

I want to make it plain that, without question, most people who oppose hunting are largely fuelled by a cocktail of ignorance, spite and vindictiveness. Their

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case is made the more irrelevant for that. Of course, I accept that some of our fellow citizens genuinely disapprove of hunting with hounds and that some of them feel so strongly about it that they would support a ban criminalising the activity. My response, however, is that those reasons do not even begin to justify depriving the individual citizen of the right to take part in a lawful activity and that it would be a deeply damaging day for all our freedoms if ever they were held to do so.

Hunting with hounds is a lawful activity in which ordinary men and women in the United Kingdom have engaged for centuries. Most of the hunts in existence in Britain today are well over 100 years old. They have a tremendous pride in their traditions and in their contribution to the life of the countryside and to its conservation. Many of them play a vital role in the life of hard-pressed rural communities.

I want to make it plain to the Minister that, having hunted all my life and having listened with the greatest care for many years to all the arguments, I truly believe that a ban on hunting would not only have a profoundly adverse impact on the welfare and, in some areas—for example, the west country—the very survival of the quarry and other species, but would also be a gross abuse of human rights and individual freedoms, and would thus be open to legal challenge. Furthermore, it would continue to be a cause of deep-seated contempt and resentment throughout rural communities.

With a large number of my family and 407,000 of my fellow citizens, I took part in the march for liberty and livelihood. As we marched past the Cenotaph, I was deeply moved at the solemnity with which people removed their headdress as a mark of respect and gratitude to those who died in two world wars for the cause of freedom.

Although I do not expect Labour Members to understand the concept, it must be true that all those people who gave their lives would wonder today whether the pursuit of liberty and their final sacrifice for the defence of freedom against tyranny was worth dying for—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Soames: When one contemplates Labour Members, one realises that all those people who gave their lives would be deeply and rightly horrified, and above all mystified, that a land that used to cherish the cause of freedom above all else could have sunk so low.

Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that freedom is about allowing other people to do things of which one profoundly disapproves? It is not merely about allowing people to do things with which one agrees.

Mr. Soames: Indeed. My right hon. Friend is correct. More should be made of that point.

In fairness to the Minister, he conducted an even-handed consultation process. I am glad that he took trouble over it, but his conclusions are plain wrong. The National Gamekeepers Organisation took a huge amount of trouble to brief the Minister and his officials

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on the various uses that keepers need to make of their dogs. In fact, the organisation was the only shooting body invited to give evidence to the public hearing, but its views were almost wholly ignored. That is one by-product of an ill-judged proposal.

However, neither in the excellent Burns report nor in any of the consultations was there any proven evidence of cruelty. For example, no evidence was produced in DEFRA's hunting consultation that would necessitate a ban on either deer hunting or coursing. Indeed, the proposed exemption for ratting and rabbitting shows a complete lack of consistency. If it is acceptable, in moral and animal welfare terms, to use a dog to hunt a rabbit or a rat, why is it not acceptable to use a greyhound to hunt a hare? Indeed, I assert that both deer hunting and coursing, as evidenced by independent observers, have strong utilitarian value and are conducted to the highest standards.

The truth is that no case has been made to justify a ban on any form of hunting. There should thus be a presumption in favour of issuing hunting licences; when turning down an application, the burden of proof should be with the licensor rather than that hunting people should have to justify why they require a licence. Those matters will have to be dealt with comprehensively in Committee.

It is surely not the role of Parliament to initiate the passage of bad law to the statute book. Its role should be rather that the love of liberty and the tolerance of the views of others—especially views of which one disapproves, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said—should be made the cornerstones of our parliamentary democracy.

Members on the Labour Back Benches—the Government's Lobby fodder—must be clear that the real issue in this debate is whether it is right for the continuing advance of the power of the state to encroach on our liberties as citizens. Members on the Conservative Benches wholly oppose this rotten Bill.

7.16 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) talked of what we fought for during the last war but I do not remember that very great man, his grandfather, saying, XWe will fight them on the hunting fields".

The hon. Gentleman said that he took part in the march of the Countryside Alliance. It was appropriate that he should do so because the march was overwhelmingly Conservative. A MORI poll of people on the march found that 82 per cent. of them were Conservative voters and that 9 per cent. were Liberal Democrat and 4 per cent. Labour voters.

The hon. Gentleman supports an amendment tabled by his Front-Bench colleagues that includes the incredible hypocrisy that the Bill

The Burns report, which the hon. Gentleman described as Xexcellent"—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman said that the report was excellent, so his hon. Friends should argue the point with him. The report states that 700 jobs are directly connected with hunting, yet the Conservatives believe that at a time of ultra-full employment those jobs should be sacrosanct.

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Between 1979 and 1987, the Conservative Government reduced the number of coal miners from—[Hon. Members: XAh!"] Yes, coal mining is a countryside industry; it is a rural industry. The Conservatives reduced the number of coal miners from 232,000 to 17,000, but the Countryside Alliance did not march for the coal miners; it marched for cruelty—[Interruption.] That is what the Tory party is about. It is a satisfaction for me to see how the Tories conduct themselves because they remind me of why I am a socialist.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) referred to what the Bill is about. It is important that he did so, because although we shall vote for the Bill's Second Reading, we do so in order for it to become the vehicle for a complete ban.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester talks about the ban on stag hunting. The Burns report says that 160 stags are killed each year. I am glad that will save them. My hon. Friend rightly distinguishes between hare coursing, which the Bill will ban, and hare hunting, which it will not necessarily ban. The Burns report says that 250 hares a year are killed by hare coursing, but 1,650 hares are killed by hare hunting, so the Bill will allow most hare killing to continue. However—this is why my right hon. Friend the Minister has introduced a Bill, the quickness of whose words could deceive the eye, but should not—the Burns report points out that between 21,000 and 25,000 foxes are killed every year, so the Bill will make about 95 per cent. of present hunting licensable. That is why it is utterly unacceptable to a large majority of Labour Members, and it is why we will vote to ban it.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) said that we need to deal with this issue once and for all, so that it does not come back again, and he is absolutely right. The only way that we can do that is by enacting a complete ban. This issue will come back to the House time and again until we get a complete ban.

One of the first Bills that I supported when I was elected to the House of Commons more than 32 years ago, with my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), was intended to ban hare coursing. After nearly 33 years, we still have not got that ban. I will remain in the House, if necessary, for another 33 years to get it, but I have got other things to do in the second half of my parliamentary service. I want to get this done in this Session.

The key thing is that, by Thursday, we had 192 signatures for a complete ban. We can get more; we will get more. If we have a free vote, we will ban hunting. I want my right hon. Friend to clarify when he replies to the debate tonight that, if the House votes for a ban, that is what Parliament will enact.

I was a Minister when we used the Parliament Acts to put aircraft and shipbuilding into public ownership. The parliamentary process is simple and clear. When my right hon. Friend the Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) during his statement, he promised that, if the House of Lords blocks whatever the House of Commons decides, the Government will reintroduce the Bill at the beginning of the next Session. I trust him; I believe him. We have to do our part by amending the Bill to bring about a ban. I will then rely on my right hon. Friend and the

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Government to ensure that the ban becomes law so that, in the words of the hon. Member for St. Ives, we do not have to deal with this issue again because, if we do, we will and will and will.

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