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Lord Mancroft: My Lords, the noble Lord has been very reasonable, although I have not agreed with a word that he has said. Does what he said mean that the Government now support a Bill with which they have publicly disagreed and are not basing their position on principle? Have they abandoned their principles here, as in many other areas, or are they still in favour of a principled, reasonable and sensible solution to what is, I accept, a difficult problem? Which is it?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thought that I had explained the Government's position clearly. In line with our manifesto, we wish to facilitate the view of the elected House, which, at this stage in the process, is expressed in the Bill before the House and shows every sign of being pretty much the same at the end of the process. There is no dubiety about it: the Bill should be treated as if it were a government Bill. As I said, it is not unusual for an original government Bill to be changed somewhat as it goes through the Commons.

Another ticklish issue is the use of the Parliament Act. It has been argued that the use of the Act would not be appropriate to the Bill. It remains the Government's view that we should seek agreement between the Houses, and we do not want to get ahead of ourselves on the matter. However, the Government's position remains as it was when my right honourable friend Alun Michael said in another place in March last year:

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By "this House", he meant the House of Commons. It would therefore be a matter for the House of Commons and the Speaker to determine whether the Parliament Act should be invoked in those circumstances rather than a matter for the Government. It is certainly not a matter for this House. There is no legal or constitutional reason why the Parliament Act should not be used. However, as I said, we should not get ahead of ourselves.

It behoves me to make clear my personal position. The free vote applies to Ministers as much as to anybody else, and I should indicate the way in which I intend to vote. I like to be consistent. I have always favoured a ban, and I have always voted for a ban, when given the opportunity. I will therefore vote to support the Bill. As a Minister, I will, of course, listen to your Lordships' arguments, and we will go through the normal procedure. However, in what I recognise is perhaps a vain attempt to limit the range of the discussions that we will have in the next few hours, it would be helpful if I identified the arguments that may be put forward that are unlikely to sway me or the House of Commons majority.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the Minister said that, as a Minister, he would support the Bill and that, as an individual, he would support the Bill. Can he imagine any occasion on which, as a Minister, he would not support a government Bill?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, on this Bill, as on other government Bills, there is a free vote for Ministers as well as for every other Member of this House and of another place. On many occasions on which that has been the case, Ministers have voted in different directions, even on a government Bill or part of a government Bill. I fully expect that to be the case at various points in the passage of this Bill too.

First, I must say that there is one argument with which I fully agree and with which, I think, we all agree: this ought not to be seen as the most important issue facing the countryside or Parliament. It is unfortunate that it should, for the moment, dominate our consideration of countryside issues. I agree entirely with that view. However, Parliament has, hitherto, failed to resolve the issue, and it is a serious political issue. We must therefore deal with it now as expeditiously as we can manage.

Then there are the arguments on which, I must tell your Lordships, I would not be prepared to shift. I doubt that they would impress a majority in another place either. First—and least likely to impress us—are arguments about civil disobedience, especially from people who ought to know better. The threat of disruption and unenforceability is not one to which the Government or Parliament can or should succumb. I hope that that threat does not feature large in our debates.

More contentious are the arguments about cruelty. If anyone tells us that fox hunting cannot be cruel, we will not be at the starting point. There are legitimate arguments about relative cruelty and necessary suffering, and we will, no doubt, cover them in the debate. They

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were certainly reflected in the original Bill. But let us start from the position that unnecessarily chasing an animal across the countryside with dogs and then—on many occasions, at least—tearing it to pieces is cruel, or, at least, as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, puts it, seriously prejudices the welfare of the fox.

Then there are arguments about enjoyment and employment. The fact that a significant number of people enjoy an activity or that a significant number of people are gainfully occupied as a result of it has never of itself been an argument for retaining it without restriction when the view of society is that the activity is cruel and no longer tolerable.

For more than 100 years, Parliament has legislated on various aspects of animal welfare, most of which has had implications for those employed or enjoying aspects of the activity. Not long ago, in the long history of this House and not far from here, a good number of the inhabitants of what is now the London Borough of Lambeth were engaged in bear-baiting. It is alleged that some of the then Members of your Lordships' House often used to nip across and enjoy the entertainment in Vauxhall Gardens. But we banned it. No doubt, there were those who expressed concern about the future—

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords—

Lord Whitty: Were you around at that time?

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, on the question of the banning of bear-baiting, is it not true that Macaulay said that the ban was more to do with the disapproval of Parliament than cruelty to animals? It had nothing to do with cruelty; it was to do with disagreement with people having any form of amusement.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes. But that is exactly the point. The view of Parliament at that time—as would not have been the case 100 years earlier—was that bear-baiting was unnecessarily cruel, despite the fact that it gave enjoyment and employment to people. At that time, no doubt there were arguments that people would lose their jobs and that the dogs which did the bear-baiting would be unlikely to be re-housed. There was possibly some concern about the future job prospects of those engaged in it and even some people who suggested that the bears enjoyed it. But we have moved on; society has moved on; and society's sensibilities have moved on. That is what is now happening with fox hunting.

There are arguments about civil liberties. I know that a number of Members of your Lordships' House feel deeply, otherwise they would not be defending fox hunting. But I find those arguments particularly unconvincing and, at times, distasteful. To argue that the high principles of the European Convention on Human Rights—drawn up in the aftermath of totalitarianism and war—were in any sense designed to protect groups of people inflicting unnecessary suffering on a frightened animal is ludicrous, as well as completely untenable in law.

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On all these issues it will be difficult to sway me. There may be other arguments on which I have not touched. Undoubtedly, there will be further facts and concerns expressed in the next few hours. But I shall not easily be swayed in favour of changes to this Bill or changes to the Government approach. We shall listen to this Second Reading debate. We shall listen in Committee to amendments and, if carried, they will be duly considered in another place.

Ultimately, the responsibility of the Government, in line with our manifesto commitments, will be to facilitate the free and unwhipped will of the elected House. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Whitty.)

3.33 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I should remind the House of my family interests. Formerly, I was a member of the Quorn Hunt and my husband and I are members of the Countryside Alliance. From these Benches, it is a free vote, as it is from the Minister's Benches.

This Bill is a "buy-off". It is a cold, calculating attempt by the Government to mollify its Back-Benchers, and to give them something they want in the hope that they will, thereafter, accept a few things that they obviously do not want. The adverse effect on the countryside, on the life of rural areas and on personal freedom generally is considered fair exchange for the continued supremacy of New Labour. For some time now, independent pollsters, such as ICM on 23rd July, have been reporting that in the population at large the number of those in favour of a total ban has been steadily declining. In July, it was less than 40 per cent, which does not add up to what the noble Lord said.

Thus, it appears that the Government are not just placating their Back-Benchers; they are doing so in the face of public opinion. The Bill is not only a "buy-off", it is also a "sell-out". As it stands, it will result in greater numbers of foxes being killed. It will allow slaughter all year round. There will be no close season. Vixens may be carrying unborn cubs or may be lactating. The 362 MPs, including 36 Scottish Members, who voted for a complete ban have neither regard for, nor understanding of, the welfare of wildlife.

They surely gave no consideration to wildlife management. One certain outcome of such a ban, were it to be implemented, would be an increase in the level of cruelty involved in the killing of foxes. It is a great pity that government Ministers carry so little weight with their MPs. In a Defra press release on 11th September 2002, Alun Michael reiterated:

    "The future of hunting with dogs should NOT be decided on personal taste but on evidence and principles of whether or not it is serving an effective purpose in managing wildlife and whether it is more or less cruel than the alternative methods currently available".

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He was joined by Margaret Beckett in The Times on 30th June 2003, who wrote:

    "This Bill, the one presented to Parliament in December 2002, as it stands is acknowledged by animal welfare organisations to be the strongest ever put forward . . . No Bill on a simple ban has ever been thought to be workable. If cruelty is the main concern, I plead with colleagues neither to wreck the Bill, nor delay its timing".

The Bill is the Government's attempt to give legal voice to those in another place who threw out all the options presented to them at the end of long, involved, tedious and costly process. There was discussion, consultation and debate, followed by more consultation and yet further debate. The Government wanted to find a compromise that did not result in an outright ban. They presented the options. There was a free vote. The proof of their failure is before us today.

Even then the Government had a choice. They could have dropped the Bill because it no longer reflected their proposals. Surely, that would have been logical and would have allowed them to come forward with well-revised proposals in the next Session. Instead, they chose to betray the countryside.

The Minister said:

    "It is a simple Bill".

I think that it is a mean little Bill. It deals with offences, enforcement, general matters, exemptions and consequential amendments. But where is the section on compensation? There may be people who require compensation for the loss of livelihood; or compensation for the loss of value of horses or dogs bred over generations to be the best; or compensation for those for whom a sizeable proportion of their business will disappear—for example, those working in livery stables, private vets, farriers and blacksmiths, to name but a few.

The Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 was followed in December 2001 by the Fur Farming (Compensation Scheme) (England) Order, which entitled 13 farmers who had been farming mink to compensation for the loss of their businesses. The reasons for banning mink farms were no more logical or scientifically based than those for banning hunting with dogs, yet those farmers were awarded compensation. Where is the parallel provision in this Bill? What will happen to the hunt servants who will be evicted from their homes?

Where is the section on slaughter? As we debated in a question earlier, there will have to be slaughter of dogs, possibly horses, and foxes, which would otherwise fall swift victim to hounds. Who will carry out this slaughter? Will the Government lay guidelines? Will it be the duty of kennel men to dispatch the dogs? Will it be left to private vets? Who will pay the charges?

The horses will still have to be fed. They will have little or no resale value, nothing to do and no purpose in life. It will be very difficult to re-home them all. Many are permanently stabled during the season and turned out to grass only in the summer. If there is no season, grazing will be required all year round. In some areas, suitable land is hard to find. The combination of costs and the difficulties of looking after those horses will result in the premature death of all too many of them.

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Let us not forget the foxes. During the season, hounds kill around 2,000 per month. Predominantly the young and inexperienced, the old, the injured and the sick are killed. After a total ban, those young who do not die on our roads will survive to add to an exploding fox population. The old will live longer and move closer to easy food sources. The sick and injured will have to endure death from mange, cancer or starvation, whichever takes them. In the future, foxes will be snared, trapped and shot, including many of the fit, who would otherwise show hounds two clean pairs of heels. The old and the ill will probably stay close to their lairs, awaiting a painful and lingering death. Moreover, let us not forget that there will be no close season and thus no controls on the killing of pregnant vixen.

Those who oppose hunting seem to be one-sighted when dealing with this matter. They see the death of foxes, but not of dogs or horses. They see the colourful chase on horseback, but not the careful work that goes into maintaining the ground and hedges. They see the end of the pursuit, but not the development of suitable covers or the management of woodlands and spinneys.

Those who support hunting are frequently unpaid stewards of the countryside. In effect, they pay from their own pockets for the upkeep of the landscape. Will the Government allow instant access to stewardship funds for all those who, deprived of the right to hunt, will no longer need to take care of the natural features of the countryside? Such care will bring them no benefit.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I do not believe that this is a Bill about wildlife protection or about caring for the countryside. It is a political attempt to control human behaviour according to a narrow view of morality. The Bill will make it illegal to hunt a fox, a deer, a hare or a mink, but it specifically exempts the hunting of rats and rabbits. They, too, are warm-blooded, have four legs and damage the countryside.

The Bill would allow stalking or flushing out where wild mammals would cause serious damage to crops, livestock, game birds or other wild birds. Will the Minister tell us whether that will include the pursuit of foxes to protect poultry or lambs? Last year, 340,000 lambs were lost to foxes at a cost of some 13.6 million, which is a large sum. The number of hens, ducks and geese killed each year is unknown, but it is considerable and, in my opinion, will get worse as the popularity for free range fowl grows.

It is suggested that the Bill before noble Lords today may well be in contravention of human rights legislation. I am no legal expert, but my understanding is that if a lawful individual liberty is to be taken away, that decision must be based on decisive evidence that a major gain will be made; in this case, improved animal welfare.

The Burns report was the result of a lengthy, serious and informed study of the subject. I should like to record my thanks for the time and consideration the members of that committee gave to their remit. The report has often been quoted, but I should like to remind noble Lords of one particular conclusion:

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    "None of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. Both snaring and shooting have serious adverse welfare implications".

That view has been backed by over 500 members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, who have stated in support that:

    "Hunting with hounds is natural and the most humane way of controlling the populations of the four quarry species: fox, deer, hare and mink".

Burns also commented on the problems of enforcement, a matter touched on by the Minister, by stating:

    "Legislation implementing a ban might well pose some enforcement difficulties for the police. These matters should be considered by Parliament when examining the Bill".

Chris Fox, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, reflected that concern by saying:

    "A total ban on hunting with dogs will bring us into conflict with parts of the rural community and shake confidence in the police in these areas. We will be asked to enforce a difficult law that will take resources away from areas such as burglary, street crime and anti-social behaviour".

This Bill is an attempt to legislate for something that is not supported by the majority of people. It is likely to result in an increased level of mortality for all the species covered, as well as for livestock and poultry. It will cause financial hardship for thousands of country dwellers and many more employed in urban businesses. Incidentally, it will worsen the problem of fallen stock. Since farm burial was banned in July this year, the problem has taken on a much greater significance.

I urge your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading. It is in Committee that we should revise the provisions and seek to restore it to its original form, which was supported by government Ministers and the Prime Minister.

I submit that this Bill is a nonsense. It is illiberal and detrimental to animal welfare. It is a wrong priority and a misuse of parliamentary time. Members of the public want action to improve our schools, hospitals, roads and transport systems, and to see a reduction in crime. These are the real issues of concern, not wasting time on a misguided war on the way of life in our countryside.

3.47 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the moral arguments of this matter were fully explored in this House when we debated a similar Bill in March 2001. I do not believe that the moral climate has changed since that time. Noble Lords certainly covered every aspect then: the morality of hunting, the place of hunting in pest control, the right of minorities to follow their traditional activities, what constitutes cruelty and much else. Certainly many informative and excellent speeches were made, along with one or two repetitious contributions and some truly memorable ones.

In my remarks I shall concentrate on where we are now and how legislation might proceed. I know that this afternoon my noble friends will put forward powerful arguments on the moral issues.

One of the more powerful and memorable speeches of the last occasion was largely responsible for persuading a majority of your Lordships to reject the option of regulation by an independent body in favour

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of the option where hunting would be self-regulated. I regret that the House chose that option. By doing so, it may have closed the door on compromise and propelled the entire debate further in the direction of polarised argument rather than arriving at a workable solution.

I agree with the Minister that a clash with the other place does seem to be inevitable. If your Lordships' House seeks to amend the Bill now before us, it may be portrayed as a reactionary Chamber with out-of-date values. I believe that that charge would be totally unjust. This House will be continuing in its excellent tradition of removing the extremes that can do damage to legislation. An example of that in a different area would be its removal of the provisions to limit trial by jury.

I do not believe that there is either a perfectly right or a perfectly wrong answer to the hunting debate. Banning hunting has developed into a kind of shorthand for banning cruelty to animals, while defending the right to hunt has been stretched by the pro-hunting lobby to mean the defence of all in the countryside, its traditional values and landscape. Neither of those positions encapsulates the truth.

Since this House last held a full debate on the issue in March 2001, I do not believe that any of the main arguments have changed, but while those arguments have ranged back and forth, and while the Government have brought forward first one Bill and then another, the time and energy taken up by this one, narrow strand of countryside legislation has distracted attention away from real rural problems, of which I would put affordable housing at the top. Wildlife management has also suffered but its problems will not be solved by hunting. The damage caused to young woodland and crops by uncontrolled deer numbers continues, but the hunting of deer does nothing to control numbers nationally because it is concentrated in small localities and it would be inappropriate to extend it to other areas.

Dozens of people are killed every year in road accidents involving deer. The bodies of badgers, foxes and deer litter the verges of our country roads. The growth of the fox population is completely out of control, particularly in the cities. Foxes are riddled with mange. Hunting has done nothing to solve this problem.

The problem of badgers has been ignored. Badger populations suffer from tuberculosis, with all the knock-on effects that that involves for our farmers, particularly our dairy farmers. By contrast, hare populations are in decline, despite the claims of the hunting interests that hunting conserves them.

The years of debates that we have had on hunting have stultified any constructive thinking about wildlife and the conservation of our countryside. We must move on beyond that point. What the Commons have sent to this House is not in the interests of the countryside, animals or civil liberties.

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One of the issues that we must constructively address in Committee and on which we must bring forward amendments is compensation, which could be limited perhaps to long-serving servants of hunts that stand to be abolished. Secondly, I do not agree with the Minister that enforceability is not an issue. It is one that the House must debate. Thirdly, the question of utility raises particularly important points. The cruelty of the various methods of pest control is an issue that cannot be dodged in the name of an ideology.

The Bill that the Government introduced into the other place in this Session of Parliament almost struck the right balance between which species should or should not be hunted with dogs and under what circumstances regulated hunting might be considered. Have the Government taken notice of the comments made by those with experience of deer herds—for example, the Quantock Deer Forum and the joint advisory committee for that area of outstanding natural beauty? Those bodies have stated that,

    "prior to a ban on hunting alternative arrangements for deer management need to be in place".

I am not aware that the Government have put any arrangements in place.

I turn, finally, to the process involved in this legislation. If we amend the Bill back to what I believe could be an improved version of the one introduced by the Government in another place, the other place could of course—it seems most unlikely—choose to accept it and end a process that the public, at least, have realised is long past its sell by date and must be resolved. However, should the other place continue to insist on its version and the Bill falls, the Government will then have a choice. They can introduce the Bill that left the other place during this Session and use the Parliament Act, but they can only use the Parliament Act on the Bill in that form; or they could choose to introduce in the next Session of Parliament a Bill such as the one they introduced in this Session. The Parliament Act would not apply to it because it would be a different Bill.

I am therefore surprised by the statement made by the Minister, Alun Michael, on the "Today" programme this morning when he claimed that it was for the Commons to decide whether or not to use the Parliament Act. It is in fact a government decision because it depends on what kind of Bill they choose to introduce if this one falls. Personally, I hope that they will be brave enough to recognise that the long-term interests of the countryside are best served with the kind of solution that they tried to introduce earlier this year. I hope that your Lordships' House will further pursue that solution.

3.54 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, this is a sad day. It is sad because we are again spending an inordinate amount of time on a matter that should never have come before Parliament; sad because we are considering a Bill which, in its present form, is ignorant, obstinate and destructive; sad because it could have been otherwise. Granted the insistence of some that Parliament should consider this matter, it was a cause for real gratitude that the rural affairs

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Minister in another place undertook such a thorough and painstaking inquiry, with many visits to different parts of the country, with many, many hours spent in listening and debating informally, with the Portcullis House hearings and, above all, with the wise decision to focus on the concepts of cruelty and utility. The rural affairs Minister met the rural Bishops and we were grateful for that.

Very many people believed that there was room for a sensible solution which would take seriously the Burns report and the expert opinion of the veterinary profession; which would recognise the anger and frustration felt by some people at the arrogance and malpractice of a very few unregulated hunts; which would set out a sensible, manageable, enforceable regime of regulated hunting—the middle way. Hopes were raised in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of country people that jobs would be safeguarded—the jobs of huntsmen, kennelmen, farriers, blacksmiths, innkeepers and many others indirectly dependent on hunting—and that the social life of rural communities, which revolves round the hunt, would be able to continue, adding so much to the vitality and happiness of rural communities which have been battered and threatened in various ways in recent years.

The 260 or so letters that I have received in the past few weeks about hunting—every single one an individual, personal expression of concern; every single one making heart-felt points—whether from young or old, hunting people or non-hunting people, country people or town people, from every walk of life, very many of them farmers—and every single one of them in favour of the continuation of hunting—are some indication of the depth of feeling which exists over this matter.

They reflect the hopes that were raised by the thorough inquiry process and the promised emphasis on cruelty—not proven—and utility, which is very important for a wide range of reasons. They make very clear the anger, bitterness and frustration at the Government's capitulation in the other place.

The Bill as originally drawn up was far from perfect, but it was amendable. The Bill as we have it before us now is unprincipled, irrational and self-contradictory. It claims to be concerned with animal welfare. Indeed, that is the justification in the explanatory memorandum for the admitted conflict between the provisions of the Bill and the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet it has been shown very clearly indeed by expert scientific and veterinary evidence that hunting with dogs is less cruel than other forms of pest control or even in the way in which most animals in the wild die from illness, malnutrition, wounding by shooting or as a result of injury.

Dr Lewis Thomas of Vets for Hunting has stated:

    "Any legislation which bans or seriously restricts hunting of the four quarry species cannot be regarded as having the welfare of wild animals as its primary objective. Indeed, such legislation will cause unnecessary suffering".

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So these proposals are liable to the very serious charge of infringing human rights and the animal welfare defence is completely unsustainable. Other noble and learned Lords will no doubt pursue the legal arguments.

The important and valuable criterion of utility, which the rural affairs Minister himself acknowledged in April 2002 might well include social and cultural factors, economic and environmental concerns as well as the pest control function, has been allowed to sink without trace. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said a good deal about that with which I wholeheartedly agree.

The continuation of hunting is of great usefulness—utility—in terms of all these issues. The Government's contempt for this truth is deeply deplorable and inexcusable, not least because of the Minister's earlier recognition of the importance of this wide range of considerations.

One of the things that have been said about the debate is that the same points will be made again and again by many speakers. Let me now say something that no other noble Lord will say. As I was on my way to the House today, walking demurely along the Embankment in my dog collar, I was accosted by a wild-eyed man, who grabbed me by the lapel and said, "Are you on your way to Parliament?". How could he have known? Does it show that clearly? "Do you know", he said, "why people fight each other? Why do politicians always disagree with one another?" I had no time to gather my thoughts. He said, "It's schizophrenia". Before I had any chance to respond, he gave me the answer to the problem. I think it was something like this: you had to go to Giza and contemplate the Sphinx in order to cure this condition. I suddenly wondered whether there was some generous benefactor who would provide free air tickets to Cairo for those misguided Members of the other place who believe they are pursuing the interests of animal welfare and yet want to ban hunting.

Apart from that admittedly speculative Egyptian strategy, what can we do and what should we do in your Lordships' House? I believe that we must do our best to bring the Bill back to the form in which it originally appeared and then add significantly to the safeguards of hunting in a properly regulated form which are required for a serious recognition of the part it plays in rural life. That would be a right and principled way forward for your Lordships' House, and I urge noble Lords to follow it. The Bill as it stands is totally unacceptable, but I believe that the middle way is still possible.

4.1 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the Bill briefly to us. I must first declare a particular interest in it. I am president of the Countryside Alliance, I hunt regularly, and if the Bill were to reach the statute book in this form, then I, my husband, my children, my neighbours and many of my friends would be made criminals. So would literally thousands of others, including doctors, nurses, vets,

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farmers, magistrates, children, housewives and policemen. In fact, the people whom the Bill seeks to criminalise are a selection of the most law-abiding, responsible and decent citizens in this country. The Government have let them down.

We were promised a Government Bill based on principle and evidence. Although I argued strongly with some important aspects of Mr Alun Michael's original Bill, it had the potential, in its basic structure, to establish a regulation and licensing system which, with improvement, could have resulted in fair and lasting legislation. That Bill was destroyed in the House of Commons. All the evidence collected by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, all the evidence collected by Alun Michael, has been tossed aside. Prejudice, not principle, and bigotry, not evidence, have been allowed to prevail.

The Bill is a bad one and the Government know it. Writing to the Deputy Prime Minister on 14th May this year, prior to the debate in another place, Mr Michael said this:

    "Some MPs want to say they are voting for a complete ban on hunting focusing on foxes. They think this is simple and ask why we should complicate matters. But the apparently complete ban is not as simple as it seems. If they go for such an amendment at Report it would be a wrecking amendment".

Well, they did, and it was. It is hard for me to understand how the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is now required to act as an advocate for that wrecked Bill. Principle and evidence are apparently dispensable, as are promises.

This Bill is a bad one. The police say it is unworkable and unenforceable. It has been criticised by the Justices' Association. No less than 63 per cent of rural vets say it will actually increase animal suffering. All the major farming bodies—those who are most directly affected—give it a massive thumbs down, as do the people of this country as a whole. There is no Labour Party manifesto commitment to a ban. There was none at the last general election. A clear majority of the ordinary people of this country now favour the continuation of hunting under regulation.

To those who genuinely care about trying to reduce animal suffering—which includes, as I accept, people on both sides of this debate—I beg them to look at the independent evidence before they support the Bill in this form. The most recent independent research on shooting foxes published in June of this year, after Alun Michael had completed his hearing of evidence, shows, alarmingly, that for every fox shot dead with a shotgun, at least the same number are wounded and many are never found. If hunting went, snaring and shooting would increase enormously. Prolonged suffering, and for more animals, would be the direct result.

Do not take it from me—please look at the submissions of the Exmoor National Park Authority to Alun Michael in June of last year. Look at the veterinary record for April of this year. This is recent, cutting-edge research, and it is independent. That contains the most recent evidence on red deer shooting, which indicates a wounding rate in excess of

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14 per cent for red deer shot with a rifle. Look, if you will, at the gloomy forecast of the Exmoor Deer Management Group for the future of those west country herds of red deer, currently the finest in Britain, in the event of a ban. If you can find the time, look at the contrast between the healthy deer of the hunted areas of Exmoor and compare them with the sick deer which are found on the sanctuary—so-called—of the League Against Cruel Sports, near Dulverton.

In the West Country, where I have the privilege to spend part of my time, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, found that hunting, where it takes place, has the support of two thirds of the general population, who are not all hunters by any means. The general population wants it to continue.

The electorate in every area where deer hunting takes place has returned an MP who shares the view that it should continue, and they are not all Conservatives. One MP who took a different view was rejected at the ballot box on this issue, as she accepts. The democratic choice of the people who actually live in areas where deer hunting takes place is overwhelmingly that it should continue. What more can they do than cast their votes as they have?

However well intentioned a ban on hare hunting and coursing may be, in reality a ban would have serious unintended consequences for the hare. Illegal hare coursing, which is a real scourge for farmers in some areas, would inevitably increase. It is virtually unpoliceable, even at present. The only strategy left for a farmer with this serious problem who currently encourages hares and their habitat is to shoot every one which moves, and many of them will.

Look, please, before you vote to support this Bill, at the independent study by the University of Kent, which was published in Nature in May of this year. Any perceived gain to the hare or the fox or the deer would be wiped out by conservation benefits lost following a ban. Alun Michael was absolutely right: this is not simple.

If the intention of Members of Parliament is to reduce animal suffering by banning cruelty to wild animals, the Bill which was introduced in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, would do more than anything proposed in this legislation.

I am sorry to say that, to some, all of this does not matter one jot because they are prepared to sacrifice not just animals but people—their homes, their jobs, their way of life, their communities, especially in places such as Exmoor, which I love—for the sake of some transient peace from a section of the parliamentary Labour Party. If that is allowed to happen, the lasting sense of injustice and resentment in those communities will dog the Government who were responsible, not just for a Parliament or two but for a generation.

The issue raised by the Bill is no longer the relatively minor one of hunting, which directly affects only a fraction of our population. It is now something which matters to us all—namely, the future of liberty and democracy itself. Democracy is the will of the people,

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not just Members of another place. Less than half the Members of the House of Commons gave this Bill a Third Reading.

We have a Government with a massive Commons majority which they can use in office either for the good of the nation or as an instrument of abuse of a minority. To use that majority to override proper debate, to dismiss the evidence, to impose repressive, criminal legislation without just cause is, I believe, an abuse of democracy. Surely true democracy does not mean that the views of the elected majority must always prevail, right or wrong. True democracy ensures fair and proper treatment of minorities and avoids misuse of a dominant position. Its hallmarks are fairness, tolerance and broadmindedness, which are impossible to find in this vindictive little Bill.

I hope that in the very limited time that we have in this Session to consider a Bill that has spent seven months in the other place, we shall do our best without delay or any attempt at obstruction to do what the Government promise: namely, to produce a Bill based on principle and evidence. I hope that we can return to the Commons a fair and sensible regulation system based on Mr Michael's structure, which complies with the Human Rights Act 1998, as I do not believe this Bill does.

Criminal legislation in the form of the Bill before us today would be a stain on the statute book. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, of the words that appeared in the manifesto. Far from enabling Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue, bad legislation reflects badly on the Government who allow it to happen. The Bill is unjust, and many of us in this House on all sides, and many thousands more in the country, would not rest until that injustice was corrected. I hope that we do not have to do that.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I do not propose to try to cover the whole field. I should like to focus on the fact, which has already been referred to, that the Bill is in a form that has been opposed by current Ministers in the strongest terms.

The Government introduced a Bill on the regulation of hunting, following months of consultations and formal hearings with Britain's best wildlife experts. At no point during those consultations or during the earlier Burns inquiry was any evidence presented to justify an outright ban. As my noble friend Lady Mallalieu said, all that scientific evidence has been abandoned in a capitulation to zealotry and class prejudice.

The Bill has many defects that render it in my view quite unacceptable in its present form. First, above all, it will not reduce cruelty or animal suffering. Recent scientific evidence demonstrates clearly that shooting, the frequently offered alternative to hunting with dogs, leaves a large percentage of foxes wounded and suffering a slow death. Trapping and poisoning are worse in causing suffering. I personally deplore cruelty to animals; I have never hunted; and I have a Bill before this House—the Committee stage will come early next month—that would prohibit undue suffering for all

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animals. It is not concerned only with this obsession with foxes. The Bill before us today will not reduce animal suffering but will probably increase it, which is a central point.

The Bill will restrict individual freedom unacceptably. I wonder whether our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches are happy with that, given their party's great historic commitment to individual liberty. It will deprive thousands of hard-working and law-abiding countrymen of their livelihoods and many of their homes. I wonder whether my Labour colleagues are happy with that. My Labour Party viewed unemployment as a social wrong, and we should not support anything that increases it. I did not join it to create unemployment.

The Bill will cause the killing of 17,000 extra hounds. I was astonished at my noble friend Lord Whitty's response at Question Time. Because 2,000 to 3,000 dogs have to be put down, does that mean that it is all right to put down an extra 17,000? Where is the logic or moral principle in that?

The Bill also creates thousands of criminals out of law-abiding citizens. Our stretched rural police forces should be used to protect law-abiding citizens from criminals, not to create criminals out of law-abiding citizens. The Bill may also be a breach of human rights—that will be tested.

The fatal faults of the Bill were best expressed by the Minister responsible, Alun Michael. In a letter to John Prescott, he said:

    "A complete ban"—

that is, this Bill—

    "would . . . undermine the strong simple framework of enforcement that is set out in this Bill"—

that is, the Government's regulatory Bill—

    "and be perceived as pursuing prejudice rather than targeting cruelty".

I say Amen to that. In December, he was more specific in his rejection of the present ban proposal, saying that,

    "the effect of a blanket ban would be to require the use of a method that is more cruel—that is a method more likely to cause suffering".

I say Amen to that, too.

Alun Michael's statements against the Bill are correct and irrefutable. Does my noble friend Lord Whitty agree with his Minister? Would he tell us tonight, at the close of the debate, whether he agrees with his Minister on those conclusive arguments against the Bill?

As a strong supporter of the Government, the politics of the Bill concern and utterly bewilder me. What on earth is the advantage to the Government, the country, the countryside or animal welfare in proposing this? Polls suggest that more than 50 per cent oppose this crude ban. More important is how few of those who supported the ban placed it in the top 20 of their policy priorities. It is political nonsense. The issues that matter—the serious problems of the country such as the National Health Service, education, crime and transport—are all seriously acute problems for the countryside. We should be doing something about them for the countryside.

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I joined the Labour Party exactly 50 years ago this month. I have served in four Labour administrations, and it defies belief that so much time and energy is being devoted to this marginal issue. The issue matters to a few who hate hunting and to a few who strongly support it or pursue it. Why on earth are we devoting time to this marginal issue and to this ill founded legislation, which is based on prejudice and aimed against our rural communities?

Faced by this legislative bigotry, which offers no benefits to animal welfare, what should we in this House do? We should certainly not simply throw it out as it truly deserves, as that might give zealots elsewhere the basis to impose the Parliament Act. We should, as my noble friend Lord Whitty at one point indicated, proceed to constructive scrutiny and amendments to improve the Bill. We should aim to conclude with a Bill based on four robust criteria, which Alun Michael, the Minister, proposed at the Second Reading of his original Bill. It should be based on right principles, tested against evidence to make good law, it should be enforceable and should stand the test of time.

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