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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The supporters of a ban on hunting should be all the more keen to allow the licensing system to come into force because the Government's Bill, as it used to be, provided for the expenditure of public money to allow so-called animal welfare groups to argue their case. It did not, of course, allow for public money to be used by those who were asking for the licence to hunt.

Mr. Gray: My hon. and learned Friend makes an extremely good point, although I have to tell him that once we have the registrar up and running one of my greater ambitions in life will be to have the Countryside Alliance registered as one of the animal welfare groups that does indeed benefit from public money. I very much hope that we shall succeed in achieving that.

There is an old truism in business that the hallmark of a good deal is when both parties leave the negotiating table rather dissatisfied. The proposal before us seems to bear the hallmark of that truism. Labour Members will not be happy with it, as we can see from their behaviour. We would most certainly not be even slightly happy with it, and I have spent three years of my life arguing against it. It just may be, however, that I am none the less ready to accept that the registrar would balance up the arguments that my hon. Friends are putting and that I could rest and rely on the conclusions to which he comes.

I would accept the Bill with a heavy heart, and I must enter certain caveats implicit in the small changes that the other place made to the Bill originally presented on
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Second Reading by the Minister for Rural Affairs. The other place made seven groups of amendments to that licensing Bill. Some are reasonably unimportant and may well be acceptable to many people who are looking at the big picture. For example, they exempt the hunting of stoats and weasels, which was inexplicably omitted from the original Bill.

They also allow the use of terriers underground for the dispatch of orphan cubs and the protection of wild birds and livestock. After all, there is really no reason why that Bill, which left this House and was voted for overwhelmingly by the House, should allow terriers to be used underground for one purpose, and one purpose only—the protection of birds. Why should the 340,000 lambs killed every year by foxes not have the benefit—

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab) indicated dissent.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman expresses amazement, but that figure comes from the National Farmers Union. Some 340,000 lambs a year are killed by foxes, yet farmers may not use terriers underground to protect them while game people may use terriers underground to protect game birds. Why should that be the case? Why cannot farmers use terriers as much as gamekeepers can? There is no reason why those relatively uncontroversial proposals from the other place should not be sensibly considered here.

Three sets of Lords amendments to the original Bill are worthy of further explanation, however, raising three areas of contention against the proposals of the hon. Member for Ogmore. First, the other place corrected what seems a logical anomaly in the structure of the Minister's Bill. He, of course, allowed the registration of the use of dogs—as he likes to call them—to hunt foxes, mink and hare. On the basis, however, of what he described as incontrovertible evidence of their absolute cruelty, the Minister banned deer hunting and organised hare coursing events outright. In Committee we challenged him repeatedly to tell us what that incontrovertible evidence of cruelty might be. He failed time and again to do so, so we inquired of Professor Patrick Bateson, the scientist on whose work the Minister seemed to base his claim, whether there was any such thing as incontrovertible evidence of the cruelty of deer hunting. In a reply dated 21 January 2003, Professor Bateson famously said:

He went on to argue that much more research was needed on the physiological effects on deer of being hunted before it would be possible to conclude whether the practice should be banned. That research is specifically called for in the Lords proposals on implementation that we are discussing this evening. In the absence of any such incontrovertible evidence to support an outright ban on hunting, surely it would be only reasonable to allow the registrar and the tribunal system established by the Bill to consider the scientific arguments of its proponents and opponents. Why should we put ourselves in the position of the registrar? Why should we say that we know that deer hunting is more cruel than fox hunting and must be banned outright? What is the evidence to prove to us that that is the case? Why cannot we ask the registrar and the
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tribunal to consider the scientific evidence, from Professor Bates and others, and whether deer hunting should be banned? Surely all categories of hunting should be treated in the same way. There is no reason to single out two particular kinds of hunting for an immediate ban.

Mr. Flook : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gray: I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, whose knowledge of deer hunting on Exmoor is second to none.

7.45 pm

Mr. Flook: One of the concerns about a ban on stag hunting is that it would decimate the red deer herd on Exmoor. Members who intend to vote to ban stag hunting do not appear to appreciate that.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend knows what he is talking about and I have seen him on Exmoor. There is no reason why farmers would allow herds of deer to roam across their farms were it not for their support for the hunt. The Minister has consistently refused to come up with any alternative red deer management programme to replace hunting.

The second series of amendments from the other place, about which we have spoken briefly already, addresses the issue of managing wildlife. It is important that the management of wildlife should be one of the utility tests in the Bill.

The third change that the other place made to the original Bill concerns commencement. The House will remember that the original Bill proposed commencement three months after its passage, but that on Second Reading a suggestion was made to the other place that—ostensibly for reasons of the welfare of the hounds and horses, although many of us suspect that it was more for political reasons and to try to avoid the general election—implementation should be delayed to 31 July 2006. The hon. Member for Ogmore suggests a slightly later date. Leaving aside the suspicion that political expediency lies behind the proposed dates, the other place has suggested a much more logical approach. Under its amendment, the Bill would come into force on a date determined by the Secretary of State, which would not be before 1 December 2007. It would also require the Secretary of State to commission research from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons into the relative pain, suffering or distress caused to wild mammals as a result of hunting with dogs. The amendment does not seek an unreasonable delay. It would be a modest delay to the implementation of the Bill and is probably accepted by Labour Members who disagree with me on other issues. The amendment seeks to complement the registration system giving the registrar the vital scientific help that he will need in assessing relative suffering. It would also give enough time for the registrar and tribunal to be set up, and for those seeking registration to prepare their applications.

I approach today's proceedings, and what the other place has proposed, with no enthusiasm. It is my view that hunting is the most humane and selective way
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of culling foxes, deer, hare and mink; that the self-regulation under which we have operated for some years works very well; and that governmental interference is entirely unnecessary. But I am ready to accept that, after years of discussion, the nation needs to be reassured that hunting is conducted properly and that its utility greatly exceeds any compromises to the hunted animals' welfare. So we on this side of the argument have concluded that we have nothing to hide, and that we are content to submit our activities to the scrutiny of an independent and dispassionate registrar. We therefore welcome the amendments proposed by the other place and we will vote in their support. If they are not passed, I should make it plain that we have grave reservations about the detail of the proposals from the hon. Member for Ogmore in three important respects—deer hunting and hare coursing, the date of implementation and, above all, the inclusion of wildlife management. But we welcome the fact that the Government appear, albeit by a roundabout route, at last to be engaging in some degree of negotiation about a fair and reasonable licensing regime. We are keen to allow the other place to consider further the Minister's proposals, so it is with a heavy heart and through gritted teeth that I shall ask my hon. Friends who care about the countryside to support the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Ogmore, making it clear as we do so that we have grave reservations about it.

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