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16 Dec 2002 : Column 632—continued

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Is the hon. Gentleman inciting his constituents to break the law?

Gregory Barker: No, I am trying to explain the anger and disillusionment that they feel owing to the intolerance and arrogance that is being exhibited in this place. Is that really how Labour Members want to be remembered? Does the Prime Minister want to be remembered as the man who ripped apart the fabric of rural Britain and passed the most illiberal and divisive piece of legislation for 200 years?

I ask every Member of the House to examine their conscience and to vote tonight not because they hate hunting, but because they love liberty.

9.14 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn): I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs on his hard work and patience and on the wide consultations that he held before introducing the Bill.

My right hon. Friend knows my views on hunting, especially on hunting with dogs. He is also familiar with the terrain of my constituency so he knows—literally—where I am coming from.

I agree that it is in everyone's interest that the issue of hunting with dogs should be brought to a conclusion. No one has benefited from the protracted debates without decision. Parliament and the House of Commons have certainly not benefited from the inability to take a decision on this matter. As a Member who represents a predominantly rural constituency, I can tell the House that it is the will of my constituents to bring this matter to a conclusion. Since my election in 2001, I have received a vast amount of correspondence on this subject, the overwhelming majority of which has come from people in rural areas who support my stand for a ban on hunting.

Hunting is a sport. I have always recognised the need to flush foxes out to the gun where necessary. As the Burns report emphasises, that practice is widespread in Wales. Indeed, such a practice would have been permitted under the Deadline 2000 option that many of my hon. Friends supported. Although I support the principle of the Bill to outlaw the cruelty associated with hunting, I am unhappy with part 2, which deals with registration, as are many other hon. Members. Part 2 will be unworkable because, for example, it will be impossible for a tribunal to be certain whether the losses cited are accurate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), for whom I have enormous respect on this subject, that that will create a lottery for cruelty.

Mr. Salter: Would my hon. Friend echo my concerns about the possible lack of impartiality of a tribunal that includes a vet and a land manager, especially as a notable vet in my constituency has put a sign on his

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surgery today that says, XAnyone who opposes hunting is no longer welcome at this veterinary practice"? How impartial would that system be?

Albert Owen: I am concerned about the tribunal process for the very reason that there may be inconsistency across the country.

Part 2 is unnecessary because, if there were a complete ban option and we allowed foxes to be flushed out to the gun, as in schedule 1, and stalking and flushing remained part of the Bill, there would be no need for any traditional hunt and this matter could be solved.

The reason for the so-called traditional hunts is the enjoyment of the chase and the kill as pure sporting activity. Yes, a prolonged chase of a fox across open countryside is cruel; it is needless and avoidable. The very dogs used for that function prolong the chase so that those who partake can extend their pleasure—the thrill of the chase. That aspect of hunting has nothing to do with utility, but everything to do with entertainment and sport.

Many pro-hunting sportsmen, some of whom reside in my constituency, have asked me whether I would take part in one of those hunts. XCome along," they say. Well, I have declined that offer. I am mindful of the last vote that we had on this subject. I voted in the same Lobby as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), who is not in his place at the moment. I can assure hon. Members that that does not happen on many occasions, but I asked him whether he had always been against hunting. He responded, XNo, not until I accepted an invitation to go on a hunt." I believe that I would have found the experience exactly the same as he did and that it would have consolidated and reinforced my opposition to hunting.

I have some experience of hunting. I, too, was born and raised in a rural constituency. As a young boy, I went shooting and rabbiting frequently. I like to think that I never performed too much cruelty because I was trained to do so, but I was young then and I also believed in Father Christmas. I have grown up and matured since then.

I am very pleased that the Bill will not outlaw shooting, as that makes nonsense of the argument used by the pro-sport and pro-foxhunters that this is the thin end of the wedge. I am grateful to the Minister for reaffirming in his statement to the House on 3 December, as reported in column 757 of Hansard, our manifesto commitment that we have no intention of restricting angling or shooting. The provision to outlaw hare coursing shows that the Government intend to address the cruelty issue. The hare coursing event, as described in the Bill, is not unlike the traditional foxhunting event. It has little to do with liberty and everything to do with cruelty.

I started by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister on all his hard work in bringing this measure to Parliament and on providing the opportunity to reach a conclusion on the issue of hunting with dogs. The Bill will assist in that process, but unless it outlaws foxhunting, with exemptions for flushing out, I am not confident that it will achieve its aim. I will support the

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Bill's Second Reading tonight, but I fear that I will not be able to support it at a later date unless it is amended accordingly.

Mr. Russell Brown: With regard to flushing out, does my hon. Friend agree that flushing out should involve no more than two dogs and two guns?

Albert Owen: Yes, I agree with that. That is the normal practice in the area that I represent.

Lembit Öpik: I am surprised by the discovery that Santa Claus may not exist, and I am even more stunned by what the hon. Gentleman says about flushing out. Is he aware that a flushing out team needs to surround an entire wood? How does one do that with two dogs?

Albert Owen: That is not the case in every circumstance. In the terrain in my constituency, two dogs are used, the animal comes to the point of the gun, and it is shot cleanly.

I was pleased to take that intervention from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), as I do not support the middle way; I believe in the right way forward. In terms of outlawing foxhunting as a sport, the Bill has a number of pitfalls. It has several good clauses, too, and, importantly, good intent. I accept that there is no such thing as perfect drafting. I am certain that the opportunity will present itself at a later stage to amend this Bill. Failure to do so will allow the muddled way to continue, satisfying nobody and wasting more important parliamentary time. Let us focus attention on rural depopulation, rural housing and rural regeneration, but let us deal with the unfinished business of hunting with dogs, too, and let us do it in a mature fashion. Let us legislate to end cruelty, to end hunting with dogs as a sport, and to restore the credibility of this House of Commons.

9.22 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): Before I briefly address the substance of today's debate, I wish to make an apology to the House. I included remarks about hunting and farming in my contribution to the debate on the Queen's Speech on 19 November. In the past, I have had a financial relationship with the Countryside Alliance through my company, David Burnside Associates Ltd. That relationship was included in the Register of Members' Interests when I came to the House, but it ceased in March 2002, so no such entry appears in the current register. I now understand that I should have declared that past relationship when I spoke on 19 November, as it appeared in the printed version of the register current at the time, and I apologise for not doing so.

As I have not been able to take part in the main debate, I shall comment on one piece of work that I did for the Countryside Alliance when I was previously retained by the alliance as a consultant. I carried out research in 20 constituencies in England and Wales, and listed 20 subject matters of importance to those constituencies. Hunting was one of them, and it came 20th—it was at the bottom of the list. We are insulting the countryside, the interests of the farming industry and all the problems that we face in the countryside by

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even having this debate tonight. I will oppose the Second Reading of the Bill because it does not reflect what the countryside really wants.

9.24 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I appreciate that time is moving on, but I first wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on introducing the Bill and, as we have already heard, on the excellent work that he did in the three-day hearings. He has done his level best to deal with the issue, but I think that he would accept that, if he has had a rough ride at all today, he has had a rough ride from the Conservative Members who clearly do not accept anything that he has said. In fact, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said that we were doing nothing more than licensing cruelty. Although I hope that many Labour Members will go into the Lobby with my right hon. Friend, we expect amendments to be tabled in Committee. If he sees defeats staring him in the face, I hope that he will accept the will of the House of the Commons and accept such amendments.

I want to mention briefly the effects of the hunting ban in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has been in being for just three years, but it has pushed through a Bill on hunting. Although I agree with those who have said that it is not an ideal Bill, it shows the Parliament's boldness to do something about the issue. It has not been caught up in what this House has been caught up in for a century. The Bill contained loopholes and those who want hunting to continue are determined and have gone to the extreme of almost breaking the law.

The only hunt that has been disbanded in Scotland is in my constituency—the Dumfrieshire hunt. That happened only because the landowner was not prepared to let the hunt carry out its activities on his land. I sincerely hope that this Bill, as it goes through Committee, will place much more emphasis on the responsibilities of landowners and on what will happen if they are caught allowing something illegal to take place on their land.

It has been claimed that hunting still continues in Scotland. Lothian and Borders police had to investigate a hunt that openly boasted about the killing of eight foxes by its hounds. We could expect flushing out to lead to the killing of one or two foxes, but the fact that as many as eight were killed shows that either illegal activity took place or that the pack of hounds was totally out of control.

My Conservative opponent at the last general election has now become a rural rebel. He has boasted in the local press about having hunted on several occasions and, in more than one outburst, he has admitted that, whereas he previously hunted on his land, he now brings in guns to take out the foxes. In effect, he is openly admitting that he allowed foxes to breed on his land for nothing more than the sport of hunting. That takes us to the crux of the matter. The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) introduced in 1997 was all about the argument that controlling fox numbers was the main reason for hunting. Controlling their numbers by hunting has been an unmitigated failure and it is now admitted in several places that hunting is all about sport and cruelty.

My right hon. Friend the Minister's arguments about utility and cruelty are admirable. However, the Bill's proposals are a gamble that many Labour Members are

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not prepared to take. I again thank him for his efforts, but I hope that he will be prepared to accept amendments in Committee.

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