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16 Dec 2002 : Column 636—continued

9.29 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Although I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), it is a parliamentary absurdity that I cannot go to Edinburgh to pontificate on foxhunting in Scotland, but he can come down here and squeeze out—

Mr. Russell Brown rose—

Mr. Gray: No, I will not give way.

It is absurd that the hon. Gentleman can come down here and squeeze out Welsh and English Members of Parliament who have not been able to speak about foxhunting in their countries because they have had to listen to him. In particular, it is absurd because the regime introduced in Scotland is a shambles by any standard. It is nonsense to think that we would listen to anything that he has to say on hunting.

The debate has been disappointing in many respects. As the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) reminded us, something like 100 hours of parliamentary time have been spent on the subject in recent years. I have been involved in all of them, and here we all are again: the same old speeches, the same old faces and the same old arguments—pretty tired old arguments they are, too. The fact is that hunting of all kinds is a minority and peripheral interest. Most people do not understand why we spend hours and hours of parliamentary time discussing it because it is not important to most people. However, it is of huge importance to the 407,000 decent country folk who came to London early this year. For each of them, 10 people who agreed with them stayed at home. It is also of huge importance for a small number of animal rights activists, on whose behalf most Labour Members speak, but for most of the 55 million people in England it is of peripheral interest.

Mr. Banks: Is it true that the hon. Gentleman sponsored 1,000 people to come to the House to demonstrate and that he put them into Room W1 tonight? That is outrageous. Frankly, his mathematics must be appalling. Will he condemn, without reservation, the fact that some of those people whom he supports have thrown firecrackers at police horses outside the House?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have sponsored no one to come here today, but the fact so many people are so angry that they have come here should demonstrate to Labour Members how very important the issues are to people in the countryside.

Mr. Kaufman: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House will recollect that earlier today I brought to the attention of the Chair the fact that the Sessional Order on access to the House of Commons, which we passed on 13 November, was violated and that action needed to be taken. We now hear from my hon.

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Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) that a Member of the House was involved in organising the demonstration that violated—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I dealt with the gist of that earlier this evening. We are taking time unnecessarily from the end of the debate.

Mr. Gray: For the sake of good order, perhaps I can make it plain that I played no part whatsoever in organising the disturbance earlier today. I took no part in it. Of course, I would be the first to decry any illegal activity. That sort of thing should not take place around the Palace. However, the fact that tens of thousands of people are here this evening, making such a noise, shows how important the matter is to them.

The arguments advanced by most Labour Members are the same tired old arguments. They were exploded by Lord Burns and in the three days of hearings in Portcullis House. They largely ignore the real evidence as inconvenient to their in-built prejudices. The truth is that almost every Labour Member ignored the Bill's content.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: No. I do not have much time.

This is the first time that I remember every Labour Member, with the sole exception of the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), speaking against the principle of a Government Bill on Second Reading. The purpose of a Second Reading debate is to agree with the principle of a Bill, but the Opposition and Labour Members do not. I hope that they have the power of their convictions and join us in the No Lobby.

Like the hon. Member for West Ham, from whom we heard much, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and the hon. Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) concentrated entirely on what they believe to be unacceptable human behaviour. They do not like it. One hon. Member talked about funny coats. Others talked about people with horns. They talked about all kinds of funny behaviour and whether people enjoy hunting, but ignored what is central to the debate—namely, animal welfare. That, and not all those aspects of human behaviour, is what the Bill should be about. The National Farmers Union, which we must believe to have some knowledge of these matters, made its views plain in its briefing, when it said that the Bill

That is because the central question should be that of comparative cruelty.

The Bill does not seek to define cruelty, so we do not know what cruelty is. We have only the concept of comparative cruelty. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he tell us which method of killing a fox is least cruel? Should one use hounds? Should one shoot it at night at a range of 300 yd, using a shotgun or—the Minister must be clear about this—a rifle, and watch it limp off to die of gangrene? That has been the experience in Scotland, as the hon. Member for Dumfries should

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know. Should one snare it, which is perfectly legal, or poison it or gas it, both of which are illegal? We need to know which of those practices are more, and which less, cruel, and the Bill must take steps to ensure that only the less cruel are allowed. Conservative Members would argue that a swift death after being hunted with hounds is the least cruel.

The onus should be on the objectors to prove that the practice in question is more cruel than some others. Lord Burns, to name but one, certainly did not do so in the case of hunting. He went to great lengths to say that he did not believe that hunting with hounds was cruel, and the scientists giving evidence in Portcullis House did not say that it was cruel. Cruelty is subjective and comparative, and the Bill entirely fails adequately to define cruelty or utility.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) pointed out in a fine opening speech, the Minister's definition of utility has significantly changed since he wrote us a letter on 10 April. It has become much narrower and harder to achieve. I wonder why that should be. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why he has changed his definition.

My suspicion is that utility, as defined in the Bill rather than in the letter of 10 April, will prove extremely difficult for most hunts to achieve. Labour Members may well welcome that, but the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) should be aware that if the test of utility is applied according to the strict definition in the Bill, coarse fishing will be outlawed and shooting will be called into question. Coarse fishing has no utility and must, because it involves hooking a fish by its mouth, involve cruelty. Most modern livestock practices would not pass the Minister's test of comparative cruelty and utility, and nor, as several hon. Members have said, would halal butchery, boxing, cigarette smoking and a variety of other activities. Why is the test applied only to hunting with hounds?

Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that given the Bill's importance to the country people of Britain, it would be reasonable for the Cabinet Minister responsible to be here and to take part in the debate? Is not it unacceptable that the responsibility for both introducing and responding to the debate should be shovelled off on to somebody who has been given that role because no one else wants it? Why is not the Secretary of State here?

Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend is right—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs makes a dramatic appearance in the Chamber. She has missed the best bits, but at least she is here now to hear her Front-Bench colleague.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point in that the Bill is being shuffled off into the background and given to a Minister of State to handle, presumably so that he can try to recover his political career, which was so damaged previously. The Secretary of State is a crafty enough politician to have absolutely nothing to do with the Bill; the reaction from her Back-Bench colleagues confirms what a sound decision that was.

The definition of utility is extremely bad, and as the RSPCA has made plain on several occasions, most recently in an interview in The Daily Telegraph, it would

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seek to extend the ban to both fishing and shooting. If there is to be any usefulness at all in the Minister's golden thread of utility weighed against cruelty, it must be defined much more widely to include species management and habitat improvement, which were both included in April, and should also include economic livelihood, sport and recreation. Some believe that sport and recreation should not be included, but the Bill allows hounds to be used to preserve birds that are being bred for shooting, and the only reason to do so is for sport and recreation. The utility of sport and recreation is therefore recognised in one part of the Bill, and should also be recognised in the parts dealing with hunting with hounds. Comparative cruelty must also be defined much more carefully.

Conservative Members wish to make it plain that we have no objection at all to the principle of licensing as long as it is a reasonable and liberal regime. After all, 40 hunts use the Ministry of Defence and Forestry Commission land and have been licensed by the Government at least since the last war. Every year, MOD Ministers sign a licence allowing foxhunting on MOD land. We in the hunting world do not like some aspects of those licences, but if vets and scientists oppose certain aspects of hunting, it would be perfectly reasonable to license those aspects to make the rest of it legal.

The Bill does not begin to address that issue. There ought to be a presumption of innocent until proved guilty. The Government should set out in the Bill the way in which they want hunting of all kinds to be practised, and allow hunts conforming to that code of conduct to continue to hunt. The onus of proof should be on people seeking to end hunting, rather than on people seeking to preserve it. That applies particularly to stag hunting and coursing—why should they be singled out for an outright ban? Why should the Minister's golden thread of balancing cruelty against utility not apply equally to them? If there is what the Minister described as incontrovertible evidence of the cruelty of deer hunting, he must tell us what it is. Why are rats and rabbits exempt? Surely, the golden thread should apply to them just as much as anything else. After all, how will hounds differentiate between rabbits and hares, the killing of which will be illegal? The only thing on which scientists on both sides of the argument agreed on in Portcullis House was that all mammals should be treated equally under the Bill. The Minister has not made such a provision, and has not listened to scientific advice. There is no justification whatsoever for outlawing coursing and stag hunting, and we shall seek to reverse that in Committee.

The Bill fails to provide a liberal and practical licensing regime, and fails to limit cruelty. Indeed, those of us who know something about these issues, unlike many Government Members, know that it would increase cruelty because of the inherent cruelty of shooting. It fails to allow utility, and achieves the worst of all possible worlds. Like the Bills that went before it, it seeks to impose unjustifiable restrictions on individual freedom, trying to justify itself, but failing, in the name of animal welfare. It is a bad Bill, and we will oppose it on principle.

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