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Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I adopted my position because I recognised the impact of upland hunting on wildlife
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and its habitat. People interpret the Burns report in different ways, but it clearly said that there was a distinct argument in favour of hunting with hounds in upland areas. I support that argument. It might have been helpful if, at an earlier stage, Lord Burns had clarified his position and spoken out more strongly, but he has done so now.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): May I tell my hon. Friend that if, at any point, any member of the parliamentary Labour party is not free to express their views, irrespective of their content, without others shouting them down, we shall be in considerable trouble?

Huw Irranca-Davies: When I tabled the amendments, I realised that I would not be successful in any popularity contest among Back-Bench Labour Members.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab): That was true before.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd).

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Huw Irranca-Davies: If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I shall try to make progress. I think that I have been quite generous in accepting interventions.

On the last occasion that I voted for a licensing regime, my local daily newspaper, The Western Mail, ran a second-page headline: "Newest MP Backs Blood Sports". That is hardly an accurate reflection of my views, but when did a good headline or story stand in the way of accuracy or truth? Perhaps the paper, along with some hon. Members, would like to reflect on my intervention on a debate in March 2002 when I decried the bloody excesses of hunts which were clearly shown by video evidence to be guilty of barbaric practices such as hurling live foxes to hounds to be torn apart. I make no apology for repeating what I have said before: such hunts should, under the licensing regime, be sanctioned and, if necessary, licensed out of existence.

Miss Widdecombe rose—

Huw Irranca-Davies: To say all hunts are like that is to oversimplify and denigrate the hunts that would want to dissociate themselves from such practices.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is not willing to give way to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—[Interruption.] Order. She may wish to keep trying, but he is not giving way.
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Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree that the pro-hunt lobby has been too slow to recognise the need for change. The Lords hesitated too long when given the opportunity to opt to reform of hunting with a licensing regime. However, the Commons has been equally guilty of wilfully misunderstanding the motives of people involved in hunts. We have ignored the benefits of lifelong animal welfare and countryside stewardship. In simplifying the debate as one between good and evil, friend and foe, we damage logical argument and diminish the debate. It is enhanced, however, if we respect each other's views, even if we are in total disagreement. We should leave this skirmish without animosity to fight other battles on pensioners and poverty, overseas aid and trade justice, crime and community. In my constituency, we have one hunt— the Llangeinor hunt. To categorise it as red-coated toffs riding to hounds would be to ignore the upland hill-farmer, whom I know well and who, in his eighties, still trots behind the hunt, enjoying the ride along the upland areas of the Garw and Ogmore valleys, as he did when he was a teenager and the valleys were full of collieries. To portray that hunt in terms of class war is to disregard—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) should know better. We must have tolerance in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) must be heard and it is wrong to heckle him.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

To portray that hunt in class-war terms is to disregard wholly the former miners who hunt with it, or the Labour party members whose families rely on the hunt for work as farriers. To represent the hunt as a vicious predation on foxes is to ignore the effect that that hunt and others have on maintaining the landscape and the healthy fox population, because the very existence of the hunt places a value on the fox and the habitat in which it exists. If we take away the value of the fox and the lifelong welfare and habitat implications, the effects are clear.

I do not hunt, but I recognise that others do. Those people are not demons and monsters, but they have been made demons and monsters as we have sought to simplify the terms of the debate. I would ask hon. Members in the debate to please recognise that my constituents who hunt hold very different views, have different backgrounds and arrive at very different conclusions about hunting, but they are exactly the same people who teach our children, police our streets and treat us when we are sick. They are not all saints—and not all hon. Members, despite their honourable status, are absolutely saintly—but neither are those people criminals. They soon will be, however, if a total ban is put in place.

The amendments in my name are straightforward in their aims and effect. The Lords amendments will be erased and in their place, if carried, will appear the clauses put forward in the Government Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs in December 2002.

The combined effect of the amendments would include the following: first, hunting would be banned, unless exempted under schedule 1 or registered for the
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protection of property or biodiversity—that is, for pest control. Secondly, deer hunting would be banned, and hare hunting would be subject to registration. Thirdly, the use of dogs below ground would be subject to registration. Hare coursing events would be banned. The registration of hunts would take place where no other reasonable available method would cause less suffering. Some animal welfare offences would preclude registration at the first point. Finally, if an application for registration were rejected, a further application would be barred for six months.

My right hon. Friend will understand if I say that my reinstatement of the original Bill does not imply that it is perfect, but I propose it again as a highly workable compromise that reflects the political reality of the moment. It has always been the basis of the least worst way forward.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will give way, for the last time.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I recognise the difficult position in which he finds himself. He is willing to allow hare coursing to be banned, but hare hunting potentially to continue. Both activities use dogs to kill hares. How can he justify a principled position if he allows hare coursing, but not hare hunting, to be banned?

7.30 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies: It would be easy to be drawn into the same debates and the same questions as have been heard in the Chamber time and again. I will not be tempted down that road because the arguments are so well rehearsed. I have a different opinion from the hon. Gentleman, and I hope he will allow me to continue.

Why reject out of hand the Lords amendments that have come down to us? Because they are clearly unacceptable to the majority in the House. Not least, the Lords have been provocative by voting last night for regulated hunting of foxes, stags and hares, subject to approval by local tribunals. That approach was always going to be rejected by the House. I echo the disappointment of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs, who had urged those in another place to accept a compromise option banning stag hunting and hare coursing but permitting some licensed fox hunting with hounds, provided the hunts passed the test of utility and cruelty.

The original Government Bill, as tabled again tonight in my name, may still prove to be unacceptable, but it has the benefit that it was originally, and still is, well intentioned. It aims to find a balance between the competing principles on the basis of rational criteria and, more importantly, it reflects the relatively recent position of the Government.

There is a well-rehearsed joke, older even than the debates on hunting, and it seems particularly apt tonight. A drunk comes out of a pub, turns to his equally drunk mate and says, "How do I get home?" The mate replies, "I wouldn't start from here." That is what it seems like tonight: I would not start from here. We are not drunk, but we are certainly punch-drunk on
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hunting. All sides have been up against the ropes for far too long and have adopted defensive positions. They see their enemy through bloodied eyes and cannot hear the shouts of compromise—too much fighting, too many blows, too many bruising and bloody bouts between old enemies. That is what my right hon. Friend ran up against when he introduced the Government Bill in December 2002. He stepped into the ring to pull the sides apart, but it was never going to be a fight by the Queensberry rules. I am sure he started seeing stars pretty soon himself.

I do not wish to damn my right hon. Friend with faint praise, but let me say clearly for the record that under his stewardship the Government made a brave attempt to seek a conciliatory position based on evidence and set against the criteria of cruelty and utility. They tried to bring a structure of logical analysis to the debate and to bring light where previously there was only heat. It may have been doomed to heroic failure—as, despite my hopes, the amendments may also be doomed—but sometimes it is better to know that one has tried. I can sleep better at night if I have tried and failed. I can sleep even better if I have tried and won. I urge colleagues to vote for the amendments.

Why do I bother to introduce again the Government Bill of 2002 in my name? Because if the will of the House is to move to a total ban, I want the House to consciously and emphatically turn its back again on any compromise, and be clear in so doing that every opportunity has been given for an alternative way forward. Even at this eleventh hour, I want hon. Members to reflect for at least a moment before rejecting licensing out of hand: because Burns has declared his position and does not see a ban as helpful for animal welfare; because of the difficulties of policing a total ban; because of the inordinate focus on the chase and the kill, and the lack of focus on the lifelong welfare of the animal; because of the threat to the welfare of the animal when farmers resort to other, more cost-effective measures than lamping, including shotguns and poisons; and above all because I and several other hon. Members want the opportunity to put on record our continuing support for a licensing regime as a viable alternative to a total ban.

If the final outcome of this long-running debate is a ban on hunting, all democrats will recognise the undeniable will of the House. It has been demonstrated on previous occasions. But do not deny me the opportunity to register my principled opposition to a total ban, or my principled opposition to the status quo. Too often in the debate the sides have portrayed each other as bitter enemies, but no one in the House should be the enemy of democratic debate and democratic decision-making.

In conclusion, I thank the House for its tolerance in hearing me out, with words that I know will have been uncomfortable for many. I began my contribution by describing what may be called the loneliness of the long-distance licenser. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar with the syndrome. At the end of my speech, as the demeanour of the House by and large suggests this evening, I do not feel quite as lonely, as we are, by and large, all receptive to well-tempered debate. I await the views of other hon. Members with great interest.
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