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16 Dec 2002 : Column 621—continued

Mr. Simon Thomas: I recognise the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I believe that lamping has a future in controlling fox populations. We will have to address that issue in dealing with the Bill.

I accept that there is a large body of public opinion outside the House—it varies and can represent a majority or a slight minority, but it is always at about 40 per cent.—saying that foxhunting should be banned, as well as hare coursing and stag hunting by association. As legislators, we cannot ignore that. There may be inconsistencies in the arguments. Indeed, the opinions advanced by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) have great validity in philosophical terms. The fox is sometimes seen as much more worthy of protection than other species simply because it is furry. None the less, as legislators, we cannot ignore what people are telling us, so it is important that we bring some conclusion to the process.

That is why I think that the Minister has worked hard on the Bill and give him credit for having undertaken the three-day hearings, listened to hon. Members and tried to introduce a Bill that can work in practice. The one thing that I recognise in the Bill is that it has underpinning principles. This is the first time that we have debated a Bill on hunting that is based on principles, rather than prejudices. The principles go wrong in some of the workings. On stag hunting, for example, a fair question has been raised as to whether we should prejudge its banning and whether it would be better to apply the principles in individual cases, as it may be possible to convince an independent authority or even animal welfare groups that a stag hunt is better in the wider context in some circumstances.

The two clear underlying principles are cruelty and utility. Cruelty to animals is defined and established in law, and I do not see a problem in making the Bill work in that context. Utility is a bit more difficult. The Bill demands that those of us who support a more integrated, holistic and traditional way of maintaining the countryside show how hunting with hounds, whether of foxes, stags or whatever, works for the greater good. It requires us to show that the individual evil of killing a fox in a particular way is offset by the

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greater good or utility of maintaining the countryside. The Burns report said that it was not clear in upland regions in Wales, Cumbria and other areas whether killing the fox by hunting with hounds was necessarily more cruel than doing so by any other method, and that that was a moot point. We must bring together the two principles to which I have referred and make them work in practice.

Let me tell a story relating to my constituency. This did much to persuade me that the Bill is the only realistic way of proceeding, although it would have to be amended in Committee to accord with my expectations.

In 2001, during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, hunting with hounds was of course banned throughout my constituency, although we did not suffer from foot and mouth as such. The constituency contains a site of special scientific interest called Cors Fochno in one of the low-lying bog areas north of Aberystwyth and along the Dyfi estuary. Under the European habitats directive, it is now a special area of conservation as well as an SSI. I told the Minister that when he was kind enough to meet me in the summer.

When foxhunting was banned in that area, the Countryside Council for Wales decided to control the fox population in the bog in a different way. It called in shooters and tried to introduce lamping, for instance. The move was a complete failure, resulting in enormous predation of ground-nesting birds by an over-expanding fox population.

The whole area is a bird nature reserve, abutting the RSPB, called Ynyshir. If its carefully established ecosystem was to be maintained—it being both an SSSI and a home for waders and visiting winter birds—the fox population had to be controlled. As soon as it was physically possible, the hunt was invited back in. It was the only sustainable option. I would expect the Bill to give the go-ahead to such measures, and I would like Labour Members in particular to apply them to their own circumstances.

By now, surely, we should have moved away from circumstances in which any form of foxhunting is seen as an issue on which to raise the class standard. There are more important issues on which to raise it. I agree with some of the criticisms of Conservative policy, but I think that—not just in Wales, but in many parts of England—principles relating to cruelty and utility can be made to apply at grass-roots level, and in a way that supports a more sustainable countryside. I want that to happen in co-operation with people on the ground, which means not penalising them or making criminals of them but asking them to join us in trying to accommodate the significant number of people who want foxhunting to be banned. I believe that a complete ban would be an ecological disaster in many parts of both England and Wales.

Many people are now isolated from the countryside. They immediately perceive country practices as cruel, because they involve killing and because they involve control. Most people, having visited an abattoir, would be turned off the meat industry, yet, thankfully, most people continue to support the industry by purchasing meat, and there is no reason to suppose that they will turn away from it.

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We must bridge the gap. The Minister has tried to do that, and at this stage I support him. I want to see whether he can make the Bill work in favour of the reality of the countryside rather than the prejudices that we have heard tonight.

8.38 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I have opposed foxhunting on cruelty grounds for the last 20 years, and I have not changed my mind. It was cruel 20 years ago, and it is cruel today. I will vote for Second Reading, but only because the Bill can be amended in Committee.

I despair when I consider the situation in which the Government have landed us because they did not have the guts to ban hunting when we were elected five years ago, and now have not the guts to introduce a Bill to ban hunting with dogs outright. I am very disappointed with the Bill, and with the way in which the Government have handled things since 1997. During the last five years they have lost a huge amount of reputation and trust over this issue—especially among members of the Labour party, and particularly among people who voted Labour on two occasions because banning hunting was a manifesto commitment—which has been very damaging.

Dr. Palmer: Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not look a gift fox in the mouth? If we succeed in banning hunting through the Bill, hon. Members who have been disappointed will forgive us.

Mr. Steinberg: I am not sure whether we shall be forgiven, but my hon. Friend is right that the Bill is the only way in which we can ban foxhunting. I shall therefore vote for it tonight.

There has been an inexcusable delay in resolving the issue, and more than 100 hours of parliamentary time have been spent in wasted, repetitive debate, when the arguments were clearly won by hon. Members who wanted to ban hunting. More important, thousands of animals have continued to suffer and die unnecessarily in the past six years. That includes the hounds and other dogs that are used in fox, deer, hare and mink hunting.

The Burns inquiry and the public hearing have demonstrated that hunting with hounds causes immense suffering to wild animals. They are chased to exhaustion, brutally savaged by the pack of hounds or forced to fight underground with terriers. However, what about the tools of all that cruelty, the hounds and the terriers?

The foxhound has a short and harsh life. Puppies that do not show aptitude for hunting or fail to meet the requirements are normally shot by the kennel man. Those that are fortunate enough to make the grade are trained to chase and kill foxes during the cub-hunting season. That unpleasant side of hunting involves chasing and killing fox cubs to teach young hounds how to kill. One does not often hear hunters discussing the merits of cub hunting; they prefer to keep quiet about it.

Hounds will follow wherever the scent of their quarry takes them. That makes the route for hunting live quarry unpredictable and much more exciting for the mounted field. The price of that Xfun" is that many hounds are run over on roads or even hit by speeding

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trains after straying on to railway lines. Others become injured on barbed wire fencing or get lost from the pack for days.

There are numerous reports of hounds being electrocuted and killed. In one case, the New Forest Foxhounds trespassed on a railway line, resulting in the death of six hounds. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not like to hear such information because they enjoy seeing the killing and the cruelty to animals. They will vote for that this evening. Passengers on a train from London to Bournemouth witnessed the train running over the bodies of the hounds.

If the hounds survive all that, we would expect them, like most working dogs, to be retired to live a comfortable life in the country. Sadly, we would be wrong. When the hounds reach the age of approximately six or seven—half their normal life expectancy—they are simply shot. They are taken around the back of the kennels, where a bullet is put in the back of their heads. That makes a mockery of the hunts' claims that, in the event of a ban on hunting with dogs, they will have no alternative but to shoot their hounds; they shoot them anyway. It is estimated that hunts around the country kill between 3,000 and 5,000 hounds every year.

I support the RSPCA's view that a mass slaughter of hounds in the event of a ban would be irresponsible and unnecessary. I am pleased that the RSPCA has pledged to do all it can to prevent such needless destruction at the hands of the hunts. The Burns inquiry into hunting with dogs found that

The previous Government hunting measure, which fell in March 2001, contained such a lead-in period. The RSPCA believes that responsible hunts should start to wind down their breeding programmes immediately to reduce the number left in the case of a ban. I call on responsible hunts to start to wind down their breeding programmes now.

I am sure that the Bill will be amended to reflect the will of the public and Parliament. I hope that there is no pressure on the payroll vote, although it is normally applied in the case of a Government Bill. If, through such pressure, the measure is passed in its current form, hunts will be left with uncertainty that may cause further suffering to hounds. It may take years for some licence applications to be resolved. In the meantime, hunts would be left with packs of redundant hounds, with no subscriptions to cover the cost of their care.

If foxhunting, hare coursing and deer hunting were banned outright through the Bill, at least hunts would have time to consider three options properly. First, they could disband and give their hounds a different home. Secondly, they could disband the hunt but keep the hounds. Thirdly, they could convert to drag hunting. I believe that a switch to drag hunting would be the preferable option, as it would allow members of the hunt to continue to enjoy the sport, the pageantry that they like, and the social side of hunting, while allowing the hounds to continue to be kept in packs.

The cruelty that these so-called sports inflict on dogs and wildlife is totally unjustifiable. The only way to prevent it is to introduce a ban on these barbaric and

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bloodthirsty forms of hunting with dogs. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has called the Bill a fudge, and I absolutely agree with him. As we have seen this evening, it causes confusion and uncertainty, and creates the possibility that the cruelty of foxhunting could continue. I must ask the Minister why it stops short of a complete ban. In reality, he has chosen a Bill that appeases absolutely no one. It does not appease the Countryside Alliance, the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals, or the public, and it certainly has not appeased Members of Parliament. I can only imagine that it has been devised in an attempt to appease both sides in this long-running debate. Perhaps the Government were frightened by the pro-hunting lobby's ability to get large numbers of people to take to the streets by wrapping the issue up in a number of genuine rural concerns.

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