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16 Dec 2002 : Column 628—continued

Lembit Öpik: If we accept that the outcome that we want is an improvement in animal welfare, and that in some circumstances—as the Minister has suggested and

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the hearings have proved—killing a fox with dogs is not necessarily the most cruel approach, it surely makes sense in the interests of animal welfare to allow a registrar to look at the specific circumstances and to judge whether a particular hunt application is justifiable within the very terms that the hon. Gentleman is discussing.

Dr. Palmer: I understand the consistent position that the hon. Gentleman has taken for some years now, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) that the primary determinant of fox numbers is the availability of food. Although there are regional variations, nationally the number of foxes that die due to hunting is just over 5 per cent. That means that hunting's contribution to the control of fox numbers is actually insignificant. We spend a great deal of time debating whether alternatives are less cruel or more cruel, but the reality is that replacing hunting in most areas with nothing will make no more of a difference to fox numbers than did the absence of hunting during last year's foot and mouth outbreak.

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman's point is that the major constraint on fox numbers is the amount of food available, but what sort of pain and cruelty do foxes experience if they die from lack of food?

Dr. Palmer: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, except that it is well established that animals breed in greater numbers if plentiful food is available. We could discuss that issue at greater length than the time available to me allows; indeed, perhaps we could do so outside the Lobby.

Most Members, as well as most of our supporters, will want the House to decide on these matters. Ultimately, the question of whether to allow foxhunting, mink hunting or hare hunting is a very simple one. Given that only 5 per cent. of foxes are killed by hunts, it is clear that the objective is primarily recreational. Do we want a sport that involves the suffering and death of animals to be regarded as legal and recreational? When confronted with that basic issue, the great majority of people say, XNo, I don't think that that should be legal."

This is an issue for debate only because it is so familiar. Let us transpose it to a different environment. Let us consider the example of children chasing a stray dog across a council estate. Stray dogs are a pest and they need to be controlled. The children chase the dog across the estate and stone it to death; they are stopped, and people are horrified. What is the difference? It is only the existence of tradition and a long-standing habit. Our society is so rich that we do not need to depend on suffering and killing for our entertainment. I will vote for the Bill, regardless of the social composition of the group and the state of the opinion polls. I have said that for many years. In the last election, one of my Conservative opponents said that I put vermin before constituents. I quoted him in my election address, and I was returned with an increased majority.

We should support the Bill with enthusiasm, and I urge all Members whose sympathies lie primarily with the hunted to join me in voting for the Bill tonight.

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9.6 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): This Bill is duplicitous and malicious. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) ranted about it being an appeasement of the Countryside Alliance. He, at least, can rest assured—wherever he is—that this is a total ban in all but name. The Government have struggled to cobble together an intellectual or rational basis for imposing this unwarranted and draconian regulation on foxhunting, but have singularly failed to make a coherent or logical case. The Bill, as has been demonstrated this evening, is shot through with intellectual inconsistency.

I have no doubt that for a minority of Members, a ban on foxhunting will be a logical extension of a principled, personal concern for animals, which no doubt includes vegetarianism and a determination to ban all forms of pest control. However, for the majority of Members who seek a ban, their motivation is fuelled by ignorance, prejudice and spite. As we prepare to launch a highly controversial war in the middle east that is so unpopular with the Labour Back Benches, is it not transparent that the Bill is a bit of red meat to be chucked to the troublemakers on the Back Benches in an effort to buy them off and appeal to the basest instincts of the Labour party?

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

Gregory Barker: I am afraid not.

This measure has nothing to do with animal welfare. Deliberate cruelty to animals is, quite rightly, already a criminal act. The arbitrary application of the tests of cruelty and utility to foxhunting is illogical when it excludes rats, rabbits, birds and other animals, to say nothing of fish.

The Bill requires no amendment to exterminate foxhunting as we know it across rural England. It is no more than a cunning device by the Government to ban the sport under the cloak of regulation. The effect on my constituents, who stand to lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes and their community will be exactly the same as that of the most blatant ban. The Government have chosen to discard the Burns report, which was commissioned at great expense to allow impartial, educated scientific men and women to find out what many of us knew already—that hunting is no more cruel or inhumane than any other form of vermin control. What is more, according to Burns, not only would a ban have a catastrophic effect on thousands of rural families but thousands of hounds would have to be shot. The fox population would be left to be indiscriminately gassed, trapped or maimed. There is no Walt Disney solution to the problem of fox control.

The likely consequence of a ban on hunting will be that farmers will take greater responsibility for controlling predators. Those predators will drag an unborn lamb from a ewe or slaughter every bird in a hen house and not take a single carcase. Faced with indiscriminate pest control carried out by farmers, many foxes will disappear completely from many parts of our countryside.

It is not only foxes that will disappear from our landscape if hunting is banned. Those of us who care about the environment know that if a ban is forced

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through Parliament, the well-kept hedgerows, the coppices, the covers and the ditches that attend an active foxhunt also face extinction. No thought or consideration has been given in the Bill to the important contribution that foxhunting makes to the preservation of the biodiversity of the English countryside. It is no wonder that so many committed and well-respected environmentalists oppose a ban. It was no surprise to hear the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), who is a particularly assiduous member of the Environmental Audit Committee, speak so powerfully in favour of foxhunting as a method of preserving the biodiversity of the British countryside.

Coppicing, hedge-laying, dry-stone walling and woodland maintenance would all be hammered by a ban, or by a regulatory framework that squeezed the life out of the country sports industry. A ban on hunting in the present climate of low incomes for farmers would make it likely that, owing to the cost, necessary conservation work would disappear altogether.

It has become more and more apparent that the debate is about neither cruelty nor care for the countryside. If Members were so concerned about cruelty, where is the vote in Government time to ban halal meat? Where is the vote in Government time to ban kosher meat? Where is the vote in Government time to ban the importing of meat from animals reared in obscene conditions that really warrant the description Xcruel"? Where is the vote in Government time to reverse legislation that has closed slaughterhouses the length and breadth of Britain, thus requiring livestock to travel hundreds of miles on motorways rather than being dealt with humanely in their own locality?

The debate has exposed some of the worst double standards in public life and I hope that Members will reflect on that the next time that they tuck into a factory-farmed roast. The debate has not shown a rational analysis of the facts: misplaced concern for animals may inform some voices in the argument, but it is self-evident that what drives most Members who are baying for a ban is old-fashioned spite, prejudice and bigotry. This profoundly illiberal Bill, which should concern everyone who holds dear civil liberties, sets a dangerously worrying precedent. It is liberty, not foxhunting, that is really at stake.

Singling out rural communities in such a measure is akin to the Government's repealing race relations laws to allow the persecution of a single ethnic minority. Thankfully, that may not happen, but the effect on our small rural communities is exactly the same. It is no historical coincidence that the first European ban on hunting was enacted by Adolf Hitler. Despite the Minister's pretence at compromise, the Bill owes nothing to the third way but everything to the Third Reich.

Down the ages, we in Britain have fought against the persecution of minorities. For hundreds of years, the defence of civil liberty has been cherished at Westminster—something that may be a laughing matter for Labour Members. Although many people may not approve of hunting as a sport, or may question its relevance to a largely urban nation, millions of people recognise that to criminalise at a stroke a large section of rural Britain would be a monstrous misuse of the power of Parliament.

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The Prime Minister will have to build new jails if he sets his face against reason and tolerance. In my constituency, fine upstanding members of the community, who have never received so much as a parking ticket, are ready to go to prison for their beliefs.

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