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Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, when I first heard that we were to debate the Hunting Bill yet again I decided that I would not take part in the debate. I have told the House before why I oppose hunting live animals with dogs, and I have explained my view that drag hunting is a viable alternative. But on 15 September I changed my mind about speaking. That was the day that the Countryside Alliance march came to town.

I am lucky enough to share a room on the first floor of the palace, overlooking Westminster Abbey and part of the green. I watched the Countryside Alliance march assemble—a goodly number—and at first there was a good feeling about it. Then I watched in mounting horror as the bad boys took over. I am afraid that the Countryside Alliance stewards lost control. I watched the tension rise outside the other place and I watched the police stand for a long, long time as the missiles rained down on them. Finally, as their backs almost touched the parliamentary railings, the police responded to the provocation that they faced.

I believed then, and I believe now, that in the circumstances the police were extremely restrained. It was at that point that I decided to speak today, to speak about democracy and its retention and about the alternative views of people in the countryside—alternative views from those of the Countryside Alliance.

My decision was strengthened when I saw on television and read in the newspapers that the excuse for the behaviour I had witnessed was that some of

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those on the march were "angry". Over the years, I have marched for matters in which I believe: against the war in Vietnam, in favour of the miners and their jobs, against racism in this country and for a woman's right to choose abortion. I have felt strongly and I have been angry about all those issues, but I have never taken missiles with me on marches to throw at the police, or at anyone else for that matter. Nor have I threatened deliberately to break the law if I did not win the argument.

Those who came with missiles on that day brought them and threw them deliberately. It also appears that some—the minority I accept—who were on that march regard it as okay to break a law which does not support their view. That way lies anarchy, and I do not believe that such anarchy can be allowed to flourish in a democracy; nor can bullying or intimidation. The will of the people in this country is shown through the ballot box, and long may it remain so. So to would-be law breakers I would say, "Please think again".

I turn now to the different views of fox hunting. This is not a town versus country issue; nor, for me, is it a question of prejudice and bigotry. I am from the countryside and of the countryside, and I can tell the House that many people who live in the rural areas in which I was brought up and have lived since—Lincolnshire, Suffolk and now rural Essex—have also been angry. Their anger came from the sight and sound of the hunt.

Sitting in my room in September and hearing again the sound of the hunting horn, I responded as I always have done over 60 years. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt again the chill that I first felt as a child on hearing that horn. I am not alone. Many people born and bred in the countryside feel the same way.

Sometimes such people are not in a position to speak out. Perhaps I can tell a brief story to illustrate that. My uncle was the head gardener on an estate in Lincolnshire over which the local hunt was allowed to ride. He always disliked it, believing it to be a cruel and needless sport. But he did not speak out, fearing that that could be a sackable offence.

On one occasion while the hunt was on the estate he entered a potting shed and found the exhausted hunted fox hiding there. He closed the door of the shed and denied knowledge of the fox to the huntsmen and women. Later he returned, fed and watered the fox and, on its recovery, let it go. My uncle's action was quietly applauded by those who knew what he had done. He and his friends were countrymen and women, and they could not abide fox hunting. There are thousands like them living in rural areas today.

Some newspapers in Lincolnshire have recently run opinion polls on the hunting ban. I have to say that I expected a huge majority against the ban, but I was pleasantly surprised. In Louth, those taking part in the poll voted to oppose the ban by one vote. In Horncastle the vote was a tie. And even in Market Rasen, steeped in the tradition of hunting foxes, 36 per cent of those voting supported the ban.

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Those results are indicative of the differing views of those living in rural areas. They certainly show that the debate is not about townspeople versus those who live in the countryside; it is about whether or not, once and for all, a decision will be taken about this pastime for the sake of those living both in the town and in the country, thereby allowing us to discuss issues which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, outlined admirably, which are more important to the vast majority of those living in our rural areas.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, once again, to the boredom and amazement of all sensible people, we are debating hunting. As the deputy chairman of the now defunct British Field Sports Society and a board member of the Countryside Alliance, I have lived this debate for 17 long years.

I agree with every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, has just said about law breaking. I deplored the behaviour that a minority of those in Parliament Square took part in during that debate. I and my colleagues on the board of the Countryside Alliance—in some ways the leaders, I suppose, of this community—can never agree with law breaking of any sort and in any circumstances.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree with me that such behaviour comes from both sides of the coin. I remember particularly the day that I received through the post an incendiary device from those who disagreed with my views in favour of hunting. I remember also the day that Special Branch told me about threats that my wife and four year-old daughter had received from people in the animal rights movement who had followed my wife's car on the school run and described in precise and minute detail exactly what they would do to my wife and daughter because I support hunting. So there are two sides of the coin. I think that the right reverend Prelate most strongly made the point that we have to find a sensible middle way to resolve these very difficult issues and not, as is currently happening, allow the extremes to take over.

The overwhelming weight of public opinion in this country wants this issue to go away. The only reason that it has not gone away is that 339 Members of another place will not let it. I suspect that the vast majority of people do not actually like hunting, probably because they do not understand it. But increasingly, because of the amount of debate there has been in this country, those same people do not think that it is appropriate to make it a criminal offence and do not think that fox hunters and others should be dragged before the courts in the same way that gay men once were. That would be disproportionate and absolutely ludicrous.

Today's debate is therefore not really about hunting, because we have debated hunting both inside and outside Parliament and the position is clear. The Government set up an inquiry under the noble Lord, Lord Burns—we are delighted to see him in his place—and that report concluded that there was no case to ban hunting on grounds of cruelty. It even went

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beyond its remit to suggest that some form of licensing would be the way through this impasse. The public consultation that the Government then held in the Portcullis House hearings came to the same conclusion.

The first of the three short points I should like to make is, therefore, that this Bill is not about hunting; it is now purely a political issue. If you doubt my word, the Minister himself confirmed it on the "Today" programme, where he admitted that the Bill was being introduced to allow the Prime Minister to placate his unruly Back- Benchers. My noble friend Lady Byford also told us Tony Banks's view on that.

So those who want to debate cruelty are taking part in the wrong debate. We are not debating cruelty; we are debating politics. But what is the issue at the heart of this? What is clear is that, as Tony Banks so helpfully told us on "The World at One" programme last November:

    "It is not a matter of great significance in the great cosmos of events or indeed of great significance in animal welfare, but it has become totemic".

In other words, it is a symbolic issue for one particular group of politicians.

Gerald Kaufman apparently wants to ban hunting for what he sees as some sort of revenge for the miners. I do not understand what the rural community has to do with mining. In fact, most people who hunt now are too young to have been around or active during the miners' strike. Why they are to blame for something they could not influence is quite beyond me. As my noble friend Lady Byford said, even the League Against Cruel Sports has stopped pretending that it has anything to do with the actual activity of hunting: it is about those who hunt. She quoted from a letter from Mr Douglas Batchelor of the League Against Cruel Sports. He went on to say:

    "In much the same way as while paedophiles may feel that they enjoy abusing children and are therefore justified, a civilised society condemns their pleasures and regards them as socially unacceptable".

Please do not think that Mr Batchelor, in this very balanced view, is alone in equating hunting with child abuse. In an article only two weeks ago in the Guardian, Gerald Kaufman described hunting people as, "racist, larcenous scum". He also accused us of anti-Semitism. For reasons that many of your Lordships will know, I personally find that deeply offensive and completely without foundation. I am incredibly ashamed that a British Jew should have made that sort of remark.

John Prescott, ever the one to find the right word at the right time, managed to rearrange his film-star looks long enough to describe the,

    "contorted faces of the hunting protestors".

Both Alun Michael and, in the past, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have repeatedly referred to the "cruelty in hunting", although both know well that there is no evidence of cruelty. To repeat that mantra amounts to personal abuse of those of your Lordships who hunt now or have ever hunted.

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Indeed, if that sort of language were used about any other minority—Muslims, gay people, black people or even Jews; God forbid, Jews—it would quite rightly result in criminal proceedings. But it is okay to abuse hunting people because we are, like Jews were in Nazi Germany, "not normal" and "undesirable" and the law is to be used to suppress us, not to protect us.

While Mr Kaufman was complaining about the protesters outside his party conference, the Countryside Alliance stand inside was vandalised every night and daubed with obscenities until the police removed it. Our staff, mostly young women, were abused and, in one case, spat upon. Anger on the streets is one thing and is to be deplored, but your Lordships will draw your own conclusions about the behaviour of delegates inside the hall at a party conference.

Of course, if there had been evidence of cruelty, the Government's original Bill would have banned hunting, but it did not because there is no evidence to justify a ban. That is why the Bill was a regulatory Bill.

My third point is about the process by which the Bill has arrived here today. It is not unreasonable in principle for governments to regulate. They do it all the time. In recent years, the Government have regulated the broadcasting industry. Some of your Lordships will remember that. But imagine that the Government decided, as they indeed did, to regulate that industry and introduced a Bill for that purpose. Imagine that, following a long and complex Standing Committee stage, when the Bill returned to the Floor of the House on Report, a couple of MPs, the flotsam and jetsam of the House of Commons—let us call them Gerald and Tony—took that Bill and turned it into the Prohibition of Broadcasting Bill, whereby all television and radio in the UK was banned.

Do you seriously imagine that the Government would have sat meekly by and let that happen? Can you imagine the Minister saying, "Look, I am awfully sorry chaps, but it is the will of the House of Commons. I know that we are the Government and can go to war whenever we like, but there is nothing we can do about it. TB may nominally be Prime Minister, but, you know, Gerald and Tony are running the show. We know that you think that they are a bit of a joke, but if they want to have it, they have got to have it"? It is absurd; it is ridiculous; but that is what happened.

It gets even worse. Having described the Bill that is now before this House in writing as wrecked, unworkable and unenforceable and perceived as pursuing prejudice rather than targeting cruelty, the wretched Minister is now actively promoting it. Anyone with a shred of honour or decency would by now have resigned in the face of such dismal failure.

The Government clearly made a mistake and now both the Minister and the Prime Minister blame us. On radio and in the other place, Alun Michael has, as we have heard, accused your Lordships of failing to engage and said that our amendments are not serious but dissimulative. We have to prove that we are behaving reasonably. I must say that that is pretty pompous. The first step on the road to disaster is when people believe

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their own publicity, as Mr Michael does. If he cares to look outside his Alice in Wonderland world, he will discover that no one else does. It is not this House that is on trial today; it is the Government.

No government in modern times have behaved in such a devious way in attempting to suppress debate, both in the other place and in your Lordships' House; no government in modern times have managed a controversial but fundamentally unimportant issue so incompetently; and no government in modern times have shown themselves to be so weak. When the Prime Minister was confronted by protesters at Trimdon, he complained that he was under huge pressure from Back-Benchers who are, to use his word, "fanatics" who,

    "seem to see banning hunting as the only reason they were elected".

When he was asked why he did not stand up to them, he simply said,

    "Well, you see, it's very difficult".

He is the Prime Minister. It is pathetic. He has to stand up to them.

We now find ourselves with a Bill that no one wants, except the loonies. Even the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House of Commons and the Minister appear reluctant to proceed. Yet we are looking for a way out. Apparently, the compromise that we tried and offered last year has been rejected, so we ought to try again.

The Parliament Act is reserved for the most important and urgent issues in the Government's programme. But the Prime Minister, the Minister, the Leader of the House of Commons and even Tony Banks, not to mention the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have all made clear that this is not an important issue. It is not even part of the Government's programme. It is not a manifesto commitment and was never mentioned in the Queen's Speech. So it is not important; it is not urgent, because it can be delayed for 18 months. The Prime Minister does not like it. Most of your Lordships do not like it. How do we deal with it?

I, for one, do not seek confrontation with the other place. However bad the Bill is, we should not reject it. I am prepared, along with any noble Lord who will help me, to try to find a solution. Although it is a mammoth task, I should like to try to complete what we set out to do last year, before we were so rudely interrupted. We should work to turn this Bill back into the Government's own regulatory Bill as closely as we can, and at the same time insert the fewest possible amendments to ensure that the Bill adheres as closely as possible to the principles based on evidence that the Government promised at the outset.

The alternative is unthinkable. The world will see— you have only to look at the international press to realise that it is watching closely, with increasing amazement and not a little horror—a democratically elected government behaving like a fascist dictatorship.

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Never before have a British government sought to use the criminal law to restrict the way of life of a minority in their midst for no reason other than bigotry.

I have heard some Labour MPs say that a hunting ban is for them a matter of trust. Trust was the central theme of the Prime Minister's speech at Brighton, because it has clearly become a problem for him. When he was elected in 1997, he promised to govern for all the people and to build,

    "a society of tolerance, without prejudice or discrimination".

In 1997, the British people trusted him to do that, which is why they voted for him. The rural community trusted Alun Michael when he promised a Bill based on principle and evidence, not on personal taste. Now is the time for the Prime Minister and the Government to earn that trust. Hunting is not an important issue, but trust is and the whole world is watching.

4.16 p.m.

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