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16 Dec 2002 : Column 610—continued

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

David Winnick: No. I want to continue.

Our view, which is supported by a clear majority in the country, is that it is unacceptable that animals, including foxes, should be hunted down with dogs with a scent for blood. They are often torn to pieces when still alive. There can be no possible justification for that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on making progress on the subject. As hon. Members said, he has devoted a great deal of time to finding a solution to the problem, and has been conscientious. However, it is simply not possible to compromise on hunting with dogs. We must go further and have a total ban.

In the other place, Lord Ferrers said that fox hunting is a sport that has been going on for hundreds of years. He said nothing about controlling foxes; he merely said that it is a sport. Future generations will find it very difficult to understand how such activity has continued into the 21st century. Minorities have rights—I have often spoken in favour of minorities and no doubt will continue to do so—but majorities have rights as well. If there is a clear, sharp difference of opinion between the minority and the majority in the House on an issue such as hunting, the majority must prevail.

Obviously I will vote for Second Reading, for all the reasons explained by my hon. Friends. The Bill needs to receive a Second Reading and I hope that that will be by a large majority. However, it also needs to be amended in Committee. If it is not, the argument will go on in this and future Parliaments. My argument with the Government is that the problem should have been resolved in the last Parliament. We had the majority to do so and we should have taken advantage of it. Like anyone who is in favour of a total ban, I am not going to be intimidated by the Countryside Alliance or the hooliganism and occasional violence with which that cause is associated, including as it has been today.

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If the Bill is amended and it is clear that a large—indeed, overwhelming—majority of Labour MPs want a total ban, we know that the Lords will throw it out. I hope that in those circumstances the Government will have the courage to use the Parliament Act. The issue must be resolved at long last and the way to do that is with a total ban. That is what the majority of hon. Members and, I believe, the majority of people in the country want.

7.53 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) says that a clear majority in the country favour a ban. That is plainly wrong. Eight out of the nine last polls between July 1999 and October 2002 clearly show that only a minority support a ban. When I was first elected, the League Against Cruel Sports told me that the majority in my constituency supported a ban. I am sure that that was the case in many constituencies. However, people have started to think about the issue and that has changed the way in which they vote on it. It is the Chamber that is out of kilter with public opinion. For that reason, it is dangerous to invoke an argument about a majority when one does not have one. Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that the Government were elected with 42 per cent. of the vote. Some 58 per cent. of people voted against the Labour party. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the tyranny of the minority is a justification to ban hunting with dogs.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): When did the hon. Gentleman change his mind? When I was a member of Newcastle city council, he was a member of the Liberal Democrat group in the city. I do not remember him having strong views on the subject. He certainly did not support the line that he takes now.

Lembit Öpik: In 1992 I actively supported a ban on hunting with dogs. Like many people in this country, despite being told that a majority in my constituency wanted a ban, I considered the issue and was not able morally to support a position that seemed incorrect. As a very educated politician from Newcastle upon Tyne, sooner or later the hon. Gentleman will see the light. In the meantime, I shall pray for his soul.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: No. I need to make progress.

Hon. Members talked about principles. Let us consider the principles that came out of the three-day hearing—the seminal debate—in September 2002. Lamentably, many of the hon. Members who oppose hunting and support a ban did not bother to attend. All three key organisations accepted that foxes need to be controlled. It is not a question of whether we kill foxes, but of how. Sadly, those who keep talking of a total ban focus entirely on one single process to kill foxes rather than looking at the whole picture.

Lord Burns, in his important inquiry, said that killing a fox with dogs is not necessarily the most cruel way to do it. The Minister has accepted that in certain circumstances and, in fairness, so have the hon. Member

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for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and others. Crucially, there was some consensus among all groups on that and other issues. Various key points arose, including that the prevention of undue suffering is a prime concern. It was also clear that the motive behind the use of a particular activity was not a consideration in banning it. If that were the case, angling and other sports would have to be banned because they are enjoyed and involve harm to animals. Another important principle was recreational use. All sides accepted that that was a utility that should not be discounted to zero. The use of dogs to hunt animals is acceptable in certain circumstances. Once again, there is nothing in principle that is wrong with using dogs to kill animals.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Did any evidence to the three-day hearing include, as part of the utility argument, the principle of sustaining a living and viable countryside from the aspect not only of people working in the countryside, but of biodiversity too?

Lembit Öpik: The discussion on that was equivocal because there was no consensus around a particular principle. However, hon. Members will have noted the hon. Gentleman's point.

The principle that suffering can be reduced by modifying practices was accepted. Scientific opinion was clearly divided on the degree of suffering caused by the chase of an animal. No one came up with unequivocal proof that it was cruel to chase the animals and that they felt suffering. However, we did accept that there is a problem with wounding when an animal is shot. In other words, while the kill is almost always instantaneous with dogs, killing a fox with guns is sometimes a messy business that can be drawn out, which causes a lot of suffering.

Another crucial principle was that specific activities within the range of methods involving the hunting of wild animals with dogs can be regulated and controlled. The point was also made that regulation can work because hunts have the capacity to modify their actions. We know that because one of the witnesses who monitored hunts, who was an anti-hunt protester, said that the behaviour of hunts often changed when he observed it. So hunts can regulate and control their behaviour, and inspection works.

David Taylor: As someone who represents a constituency in which fox hunting takes place on a reasonable scale, can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether regulation and registration can work? How can hunts control that small but dark underbelly of people who are involved in some of the cruellest practices of all, such as terrier cubbing and so on?

Lembit Öpik: That is why I support licensing and regulation. It was a hunt monitor himself who said that hunts behaved differently when he watched them.

It is sad that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) did not have time to hear the rest of the debate, because I want to deal with the weakness of calling for a total ban. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North also called for that, but no one has explained what a total ban means.

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If we look at Scotland we see the mess that is created when we try to ban hunting with dogs, because all that has changed is the fact that instead of riding horses to hounds, people ride horses while carrying guns. It is impossible not to have exemptions if one wants to be fair to the public, and once there are exemptions, there is no question but that the activity will continue. Regulation can be achieved, but we see in Scotland that the most intensive effort to ban hunting with dogs simply failed.

The amazing comments by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) included a description of the clothing of people who hunt, which has nothing to do with the moral issues here. The hon. Gentleman also made the point that he is happy to allow individuals to hunt on horseback with dogs as long as they do not kill any animals. Let us be clear: dogs are genetically programmed to kill animals from time to time, so even the hon. Gentleman must accept that there must be exemptions.

The middle way group is is concerned about the over-strict definition of utility. We think that recreational activity should be included because that seemed to be a point of consensus in the three-day hearing in September. If the concept of utility is too limited, an inconsistency is introduced, which must mean that shooters, fishers and anglers will be concerned about the potential extension of the ban to their activities. I make no bones about it: if I were a member of an animal welfare organisation and I achieved a ban on hunting with dogs, I would naturally try to go further. There will be a momentum in those organisations to try to achieve more.

Rats and rabbits are exempted, but should not there be provision for mice, voles, shrews and squirrels? Dogs do not distinguish between hares and rabbits, so we may make criminals of people who go out with good intentions of killing rats and rabbits but end up killing mice or voles. We need to consider exemptions in Committee.

There is very little scientific evidence to show that killing a fox with dogs is better or worse than using another method. The middle way group will seek to initiate research in the months ahead which may be useful in Committee. We are also concerned about what may be an arbitrary distinction between the forms of hunting that will be allowed and stag hunting and hare coursing. Why not allow those questions to be determined by the registrar according to the same criteria?

The Bill provides a serious opportunity for us to have a rational debate, leading to a sensible and sustainable outcome, but only if we have an informed debate. It is not good enough to sit here for two hours, make a speech and walk out. If Members are serious about the matter, they will study the findings of the Burns inquiry and the three-day hearing, which was a seminal achievement by the Minister in obtaining information on the matter, and, in a cool, collective and, so far as possible, non-tribal manner, come to a lasting solution. If we achieve that, we will be a credit to a democratic institution; if we do not, it will be to our shame that we sought to regulate on the basis of emotion rather than on the basis of the facts, which are there for all to read.

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