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16 Dec 2002 : Column 625—continued

Alun Michael: While I accept my hon. Friend's views on the Bill, I would ask him to accept that the way in which the process has been undertaken and the way in which the Bill has been drafted have been based entirely on trying to get the right principles into place and to deal with the issue so as to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on it. I ask him at least to accept the integrity with which I have attempted to bring the Bill before Parliament.

Mr. Steinberg: I certainly accept that; I am not questioning the Minister's integrity at all. I think that he has been misguided in bringing us a Bill that appeases nobody, but I would certainly not accuse him of doing anything that was not proper.

Having said that, however, I would say to the Minister that if the Bill was introduced to appease the Countryside Alliance, whose actions we have seen outside the House today, let us consider the reasons that its members took to the streets for a so-called liberty and livelihood march. In my view, that march had nothing to do with foxhunting at all. Only 47 per cent. of the marchers lived in the middle of the countryside. A quarter of them lived in towns, and 52 per cent. were affluent people from social categories A and B. Eighty-two per cent. of the marchers voted Conservative. The Countryside Alliance march was a political rally. It was an anti-Government march, not a pro-countryside march. Recent military-style action and the threat of civil disobedience and law breaking are indicative of a growing desperation among the pro-hunt lobby that simply goes to show that its members have lost the arguments on hunting. Attempts by a small minority to block the wishes of the majority of people in this country and cause significant disruption to commuters, businesses and families travelling away for the weekend show scant regard for the democratic process.

I would have liked to go on speaking. I acknowledge the effort that the Minister has put into the Bill, but he could have saved himself a lot of time and a great deal of hard work by producing a Bill that reflected the will of the House. I suggest that he removes part 2 and allows the democratic process to stop this cruelty once and for all. It is time that the democratic will of Parliament and of the majority of people in this country was listened to, and time that hunting with hounds was finally abolished.

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8.48 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a great respect for the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), but I have to say that I think that that was the most prejudiced and ignorant speech I have heard in my 10 years as a Member of Parliament. The House is at its worst when we debate this subject. I have been involved in hunting all my life, and I have heard so much ignorance this evening that it is unbelievable.

I feel sorry for the Minister. Whatever his personal views, he has approached the subject with integrity. The hearings that he conducted in Portcullis House were fair, and he relied on the evidence of the Burns inquiry. If we study the evidence fairly and objectively, however, it would be difficult to introduce this Bill. I hope that some of its deficiencies will be dealt with in Committee, because we all want to see hunting regulated and managed properly, if it is to continue, with the least cruelty attached to it. I would maintain that the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting, which few people know anything about, is extremely tough and should be used as the model for the Bill, but that is an argument for another day.

One main weakness of the Bill is that it does not rely on proper scientific and objective evidence, as I said in an intervention on the Minister. I cannot understand why hare coursing and deer hunting have been specially ruled out with an automatic ban, especially in view of the objective evidence of Wise, Bateson and Harris, who

It is probable that similar reversible processes would be found in hunted foxes, hares and mink. So, if one takes the expert scientific opinion, no incontrovertible evidence exists, as the Minister said this morning to a stag hunting delegation, to show that stag hunting is cruel. If we are to legislate, we should do so on proper objective, scientific principles.

If paragraph 5.26 of the Burns report is to be believed, hunts cull 21,000 to 25,000 foxes each year; if the 2010 biodiversity regime is to be applied, farm animals are to be protected. Presumably, that same number of foxes will still need to be culled. How will they be culled? There are a number of alternatives. The first is using a high-powered rifle. That might be safe in vast areas of Wales, but it would not be safe at night in vast areas of the south of England due to people wandering on footpaths, the right to roam and so on. Even if it were safe, I can tell Members, as I have done it, that using a high-powered rifle and killing the fox with the first shot requires a degree of expertise.

The second method that could be used is shooting foxes with a shotgun. I can tell Members that the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ran a trial, which found that 46 per cent. of foxes that are shot with a shotgun go away wounded. Anybody who knows anything about shooting foxes with a shotgun knows that when they go away wounded, they suffer a long, lingering death. Mostly they go to ground, unfound and unseen, but they live in their earth for a long time before they die, and very painful it is too.

The third alternative is some form of running snare that is legal. Again, however, unless the running snare is inspected every day— [Interruption.] I wish that the

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Minister would listen, because he might learn something from somebody who knows about the subject. One could use a running snare, which is perfectly legal, but the issue of cruelty would become immense if it were not inspected every day. Members should imagine being caught by the leg in a snare and desperately trying to get away.

Mr. Banks: Those snares should be illegal.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If a fox is caught by the leg by a snare, it will bite its leg off to try to get away. That is how cruel running snares are.

Mr. Banks: They should be banned.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I would maintain that all the alternatives are crueller—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There are far too many sedentary interventions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. All the alternatives are crueller, but let us be under no illusion—the Bill will license cruelty.

I refer to the business of the tribunals, which is unfair. Under the tribunal process, the opponents of the licence for an individual hunt will be allowed to appeal and re-appeal, yet the applicant for a licence may not reapply on the same grounds until at least six months have passed. I would maintain that that is unfair and disproportionate. Also, given the acknowledged absence of any scientific evidence, applicants for registration face an impossible task, as the burden of proof will be on them to show that they can pass the least-suffering test. To quote clause 8 in part 2, applicants will have to prove that an equivalent to the utility contribution

As Lord Burns said, there is

In other words, it is impossible to pass the test to get a licence. The Bill will certainly mean that a significant number of hunts will not continue—otherwise, what is the point of it?

Along with many of my colleagues, I took part in the March for liberty and livelihood, as did 407,000 other people: honest, law-abiding citizens, the bedrock of this country. The Bill will impose all sorts of sanctions on them, including forfeiture of vehicles and animals. How on earth is a police constable at the scene of a suspected breach to compel a person to give up his animals? We are introducing powers to search property, and criminal sanctions on people who breach the provisions: ordinary, honest, law-abiding citizens such as many of my constituents. I represent more hunts, I suspect, than any other Member of Parliament: 10 at the last count. Large numbers of people will be subject to fines and possibly criminal sanctions. Is that what we really want? Do we want to send people to jail? I wonder whether the

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House is really cognisant of what it is taking on. As Churchill said, we must not underestimate the power of minorities.

I urge the House to think very carefully about how it legislates on this subject. This is a bad Bill, and one that the House will come to regret.

8.56 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): To clarify one point, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) accused me and others who oppose hunting of class envy. I do not know which class he believes himself to belong to, but I have no wish to join it.

I welcome the Government's consistency and courage in delivering a conclusion to a debate that has been running for more than 100 years. I especially welcome the personal dedication of the Minister, who is informally becoming known as the Minister for heroic efforts. We look forward to his being asked to solve the fire dispute, abolish the common agricultural policy and disarm Saddam Hussein.

The Bill is an honourable attempt to find a logical common ground, but both the riot outside this place earlier today and the blatant hostility of Conservative Members show that most hunt supporters are not interested. It has been informally suggested that, unlike a total ban, the Bill has a chance of getting through the other place, so that we could complete the business this year. God loves optimists, but after what we have seen today that appears very unlikely.

I accept and welcome the Bill's basic philosophy. It is right and logical to consider utility and cruelty in each case. I will support the Bill tonight. There are two central problems, however. The first is that there is nothing to stop thousands of people clogging up the machinery with individual applications. Applications are not limited to existing hunts, so every individual member of a hunt could propose to set up a new one. I see no logical end point to the process. Six months after an application is rejected, the individual will be back to apply again.

The second problem is that the Bill, as it stands, delegates the decision on the utility or cruelty of the hunting of foxes, hare and mink to a tribunal. The Minister has made great efforts to ensure that the tribunal is fair and representative. As many of us have speculated and as Opposition Members have suggested, it may well be that the tribunals will find that the majority of hunts do not satisfy the criteria; however, we do not know. A glance at legal processes in Britain over the years shows that one cannot sensibly and firmly predict how tribunals and courts will behave. In practice, we are taking a gamble if we take this option.

What do the public expect? I believe that they—by which I mean a majority—expect Parliament to reach a conclusion on this matter, and they will be surprised if the one that we reach is that we should delegate the decision to a tribunal. Most people simply do not want us to do that. They want us to come to a view, and as has been said, about 50 per cent. want us to conclude that hunting with hounds should be banned.

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