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Evidence presented to Burns reflected many of the conclusions about which I told the House in 1997. For example, hunters argued that prey did not suffer because of the quick-kill theory. It was claimed that prey was killed by a nip to the back of the neck. The post mortem evidence on both hares and foxes commissioned by the Burns inquiry is most illuminating. The summary of the Cambridge university post-mortem evidence states:
This hare was producing milk . . . The hare was very pale indicating substantial bleeding before death. The skull was crushed and the brain damaged. One eye had been forced from the socket . . . 9 ribs were fractured, a lung punctured and substantial bleeding had occurred into the chest . . .
Hare no 4.
The hare was heavily pregnant . . . substantial injuries and bruising over the back of the hare . . . Some of the spinal bones were broken and a kidney displaced.
. . . no indication of damage to the . . . (neck) vertebrae.
Profound trauma by repeated dog bite.
Mr. Foster: A post mortem cannot determine the time that elapsed between the first hound catching the fox and the damage caused. My point is that the death was not caused by a quick bite to the back of the neck.
Hunt supporters have now changed their soundbite on the issue. They now say that the manner of the kill is the "least cruel" option. I reject that. I return to what Burns said and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) quoted. Lamping--shooting a fox at night with a rifle--is the most humane way of killing a fox. If lamping is not practical, flushing the fox out of cover to be shot is more humane a method of killing than hunting with dogs. However, focusing on the kill itself is not the only issue. The chase, too, causes the prey--a fox, hare or deer--distress. If cruelty is defined as "causing unnecessary suffering", the chase is indeed cruel.
Mr. Robathan: I understand that the hon. Gentleman fishes. He mentioned cruelty, but is he aware that the RSPCA has found that, beyond peradventure, fishing is cruel? I understand that he is willing to catch a fish on the end of a hook--purely for pleasure, not to eat; in coarse fishing the fish is not eaten--and play with it for hours. Surely that is just as cruel as anything that happens to a fox.
The chase is deliberately prolonged by activities such as stopping up earths and "holding up". On average, the chase lasts between 15 and 20 minutes and covers a distance of six or seven miles. In the case of deer, it can last three hours and cover many more miles.
The chase is unnecessary, but it is the very essence of the sport that is associated with hunting. The chase causes the animal unnecessary suffering and is therefore by definition cruel. No regulatory body intended to oversee such an activity could fail to reach that conclusion.
The concern about jobs is real, but the Countryside Alliance's exaggerations have been exposed for the fraudulent claims that they are. Given the notice that hunt employees have had of the likelihood of a ban, they should by now have investigated the alternatives. As I have said previously, drag hunting is a viable alternative.
People have the skills to breed and train the hounds, to organise the hunting day and the hunting calendar, and to maintain the fences and hedges that are associated with the thrill of the chase. People build and maintain artificial earths and go out of their way to stop up natural hiding holes for the fox. I do not believe that it is beyond their wit to make drag hunting a genuine alternative. On drag hunting, Burns observed that there is little motivation to develop the sport while live quarry hunting exists.
The pest control argument has been made and lost. The conclusions are clear. Hunting with dogs is a sport disguised as a form of pest control. Current hunting practices, such as the use of artificial earths, are totally inconsistent with the objective of population control, but totally in keeping with a good day's sport.
Traditional fox hunts account for one in every 40 fox deaths. It is not an effective method of control. With 40 per cent. of foxes killed during cub hunting, it is hardly selective in weeding out the sick or the lame. The average cost per kill is £930. In six hunts, it costs more than £3,000 a kill. So it is hardly an efficient process, either.
The fox has been persecuted for many years for the wholesale slaughter of lambs, chickens and piglets. It is difficult to distinguish between the killing of a live lamb and the scavenging of a dead or dying one, and so the myth grew. However, Burns concluded that less than 2 per cent. of lambs are killed by foxes. I accept that there can be localised variations, but in such cases, we need selective action, not a gap in the hunting calendar and the random pursuit by scent of any old fox that happens to be in the neighbourhood.
I make no apologies for quoting from the Burns report. The wife of a hunt master said in a letter that they thought Burns would be their saviour, but instead the situation had become a nightmare. I do not share that view. The report has cast light on important issues that were shrouded in darkness. Far from being a nightmare, it is a wake-up call to all those people who believe that humans should have respect for other creatures on this planet.
The issue has become one of democracy. Following an independent inquiry, there is to be a free vote on a range of options, which will mean that it has been scrutinised. My private Member's Bill to ban hunting was talked out in March 1998. That day marked the end of the beginning. Today, we are at the beginning of the end.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Liberal Democrat party has concluded that hunting with dogs should be banned. Although colleagues in this House and the other place know that it is the party's view, they also know that it will not be imposed on them. Like members of other parties, my colleagues will vote according to their conscience. [Interruption.] Liberal Democrat Members are in the same position as other hon. Members.
Our previous debate of substance on the issue was when the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) promoted his Bill. On Second Reading, 27 of my colleagues voted in favour of it, 14 voted against and six abstained or were absent. Therefore, it is also clear that the majority of my present colleagues have been persuaded that a ban is appropriate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick- upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who was my predecessor as spokesman on home affairs, opposed the ban. I shall make my position clear: I have always supported a ban on hunting. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should not jump to prejudiced conclusions. We all come to the debate understanding not only that there are strongly held views, as evidenced by this debate and the discussions outside the House, but that many of those views stem from tradition and experience and should be treated with respect.
I shall deal with the two most common prejudices about people's views. First, it is absolutely untrue that people in urban areas oppose foxhunting and people in rural areas support it. Evidence also does not bear out the belief that Members of Parliament from urban areas are overwhelmingly opposed to foxhunting, and those from rural areas are supportive. In any event, people should not jump to conclusions about their colleagues, and I shall give two examples to demonstrate why.
The second prejudice relates to people who go hunting. Anybody who knows anything about hunting--I claim to be in that category--knows that it is not a class-based activity or sport. People from all backgrounds hunt. I hope that prejudice on this ground will also be put aside. People on low incomes and those from poor backgrounds hunt just as frequently and with just as much enthusiasm as people who are more advantaged.
The debate on this Bill is as much about process as it is about principle. There is also a third issue to be discussed--what we should do about public opinion. On the process, I commend the way in which the Government have handled the issue. They made a commitment in their manifesto to have a free vote on the principle. Everybody who read that assumed that it also implied a commitment to find time for the legislation, if the vote was in favour of a ban. It is therefore appropriate that the Bill has been introduced. If the Government had not introduced it, they would have implicitly betrayed their manifesto commitment.
Given how long the issue has been around, it is right, too, that we are moving towards its resolution. The Home Secretary has presented us with a multi-option Bill, of which there have been good examples in the past, and that is the right way to proceed. Multiple options were given not only in the Sunday Trading Bill--a matter on which people had strong personal opinions, rather than a party view--but also in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, on which people had strong ethical views. It seems, therefore, that this is an appropriate procedure for this Bill. It is also entirely reasonable that each of the options can be amended, so once the House has made its initial choice, that is not the final word.
It is also commendable that the authoritative Burns inquiry was held. I found it very helpful. The arguments were useful and dealt with some of the prejudices. There was a huge debate, for example, about what implications a ban would have for jobs, and the inquiry was effective in producing the most recent evidence and answering that point, which gives us a common basis on which to make a decision.
Turning to the constitutional issues, my personal view is that although hunting was a reserved matter when we debated the Government of Wales Act 1998, which set up the National Assembly, it would be much more appropriate if the issue were decided by the Assembly. Scotland will make its own decision and legislate, as it is entitled to do. Northern Ireland has separate arrangements and, coincidentally, does not have hunting. It is therefore entirely inconsistent on this issue that Wales alone should be affected by a decision made by a House with a large majority of English Members.