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Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for introducing the Bill in this way; it is the right way to do it. I take a certain amount of pleasure in uniquely disagreeing with him. I do not think that I have ever done so before on a policy matter.

I should like to refer to a comment made several times by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). He kept saying that the Bill has been introduced for electoral reasons. If that is the case, it implies that he believes that the electorate are all on our side, so he loses his argument either way--

Mr. Banks: And right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) wants us to win.

Mr. Pickthall: That is right.

I will vote for a total ban because I believe that hunting with dogs is wrong. I believe that it cannot be wrong sometimes but okay at others just because it has been licensed, and I shall explain why in a moment.

The Bill provides an opportunity for the House to ban hunting with dogs, but, in the past couple of years, those on both sides of the argument have had an increasing tendency to discuss it almost entirely as though it were about foxhunting and nothing else. The Country Landowners Association briefing, which we have all received, is entirely about foxhunting; it mentions no other mammal. Pro-hunters follow that line because it allows them to concentrate on the arguments about vermin control. Many anti-hunters concentrate on foxhunting, too. I am not certain why, but I suspect that it is because foxhunting conjures up the panoply of ceremonial involved in hunting and there is a touch of class-war instinct in that for many people.

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The Bill will outlaw stag hunting, deer hunting, hare coursing, hare hunting and mink hunting. I have never witnessed a stag or mink hunt--or only on film--but I have frequently witnessed hare coursing. I want to spend a couple of minutes telling those hon. Members who have not seen it what that gruesome activity involves.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): As the hon. Gentleman wants a complete ban, and if the House votes for one, can he say, as a member of the Labour party, whether he has obtained any assurance from the Government about what they will do if the House of Commons votes for a total ban but the House of Lords votes for registration? Will they press ahead with a total ban under the Parliament Acts, or will they choose the compromise, which some people suspect may happen?

Mr. Pickthall: The hon. Gentleman makes his own point. It is not for me to second-guess the mysteries of the manoeuvres that will take place if that eventuality arises. That is a matter for the usual channels.

My constituency is the unwilling host to the blue riband event of hare coursing--the Waterloo cup at Altcar--which is held each February. It attracts, I stress, a mainly urban audience of several thousand. Hares are encouraged to breed in the area. Some years they have been netted elsewhere--usually in East Anglia, but even in Ireland--and brought to Altcar to be coursed. It is essentially a spectator sport; it does not even have the excuse of people enjoying the thrill of the chase and being involved in that way.

Hares are beaten out of the longer grass one at a time on to the course, which resembles a large football field with an embankment around it on three sides. A man called the slipper holds two rival greyhounds and releases them when the hare bolts past him. Whether the hare is caught and killed depends partly--perhaps largely--on how soon the hounds are released, and visitors such as myself never see a hare killed. As soon as we leave, the slaughter recommences.

Points are scored by the dogs for turning the hare away from its escape route. When a hare is caught by one dog, it is almost invariably caught also by the other dog and usually pulled in half. The League Against Cruel Sports described that activity as creating a "living rope"; it is absolutely appalling. I can hardly imagine anything worse, and Burns sums it up by saying:

a wonderful understatement. Hares that escape--many do--are often pursued unofficially in contiguous fields by coursing supporters with their dogs.

No one could describe the hare as vermin. I know of no farmer--and there are many in my constituency--who complains that hares are pests. On the contrary, everyone I know regards the hare as a magnificent and exciting mammal. People regret the fact that the brown hare is under severe pressure from hunting, but especially from changes in agricultural practices.

I know the gamekeeper at Altcar and I admire his work on the estate, except for his hare-coursing activities. I support him, particularly in his constant battle against illegal hare coursing. That activity is carried out by men, mostly from the conurbations of east Lancashire and Merseyside, who arrive in vans, set their dogs to hunt hare and leave the killed hares where they lie. They physically

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threaten farmers who try to keep them off their land--they threaten them with personal violence or with burning their hayricks. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has similar experiences on his patch. How can we morally combat that unacceptable activity to any effect when organised coursing is accepted, simply because it has a species of licence--the third way's proposal. [Hon. Members: "The middle way."] I beg its pardon. [Interruption.] They seem a bit the same to me.

I note recent reports that the pro-hunting organisations are prepared to jettison hare coursing so long as they can retain foxhunting. If that is true, it shows that at last the loathsomeness of hare coursing is filtering through even to the most confirmed hunters. I am pleased to note that the Bill deals with coursing separately and specifically in schedule 3.

I was brought up just outside a small town in Cumbria and now represent a huge rural area of Lancashire. I know a good deal about the harshness of rural life and about the speed and efficiency with which the farming community disposes of pests, with or without dogs. An argument in defence of hunting that depends on saying that it is an innocent preoccupation of gentle rural folk who are being persecuted by an urban majority obsessed with anthropomorphism is bull.

Hunting appeals to anyone--rural or urban--who wishes to pursue animals solely for pleasure. My personal belief is that it is only acceptable to kill animals for food, for self-defence or the defence of others or other animals, or when an animal is sick or wounded. I find it impossible to understand human beings who enjoy and derive vicarious pleasure from seeing a wild mammal torn to bits by dogs that have been specially bred and trained to do so. Incidentally, I do not know of any angler or fisherman who fishes by means of specially trained dogs.

The pro-hunting lobby claims that a ban on hunting wild mammals with dogs represents the oppression of a minority by the majority. A letter in The Times on Monday from a lady in Ashburton says:

That is a fine principle on which to base our constitution and law making. It should not need to be pointed out that virtually all legislation infringes the freedoms of particular minorities and prevents them from perpetrating certain acts. The crucial factor in legislation is the assessment of the nature and acceptability of the acts that are being legislated against, or for. That is one of the reasons we are sent here as representatives of our constituents, not as delegates.

However, we now find--it was repeated by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)--that the pro-hunting lobby and the middle way have shifted their position. We hear now that we should not legislate for a ban because only 48 per cent.--a minority--support it. They argue that if it is a majority view it is unacceptable, but if it is a minority view it is also unacceptable. That is brilliant. These are wonderful Morton's fork arguments, and it is small wonder that the Burns inquiry refused to wander into that quagmire.

The pro-hunters also tell us that the ban would infringe the civil liberties of hunters, and they invoke the Human Rights Act 1998 and the articles of the convention on which it is based. In particular, they invoke article 1 on

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the enjoyment of property rights and article 8 on the respect for private life. That argument does not bear a moment's examination. Let us consider what people are allowed to do in their private life or with their private property. Of course we should be able to enjoy our private property under the Human Rights Act, but we are not allowed to beat a dog to death with a stick in our own kitchen or murder a cat--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order.

8.11 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I am not sure what I find more worrying--the fact that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) kisses fish, or the fact that he thought it appropriate to tell us. However, I wish to correct him on one point. Like him, I was a member of the Committee that considered the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). The hon. Member for Reading, West alleged that those of us who support hunting had used parliamentary tactics to waste time and delay the Bill's progress. If he had attended the Committee as often as I did--I attended every sitting--he would remember that for its first two sittings, those of us who supported hunting did not say a word. It is a matter of fact that the friends of the hon. Member for Worcester filibustered their own Bill for a good part of the Committee stage.

I do not have much time, so I will have to gallop through my contribution. We are used to galloping in my part of Leicestershire, and I hope that my constituents will be able to continue to do that for many years to come.

I represent Harborough, and there are five packs of hounds in the district--three packs of foxhounds and two foot packs. I accept that not all my constituents support the view that I take, and I fully respect the views of those who have written to me because they oppose the continuation of hunting. However, as the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) suggested, my job is not to act as a delegate for any particular section of my community, but to speak my mind. I hope that the other Members who contribute to the debate will also do that.

The Bill is a sad commentary on the Government's sense of priorities. We are led to believe that there are very few weeks of this Parliament left, and it is sad that a Government who spent 18 years in opposition and should be bristling with ideas for the improvement of this country, can produce nothing more than this Bill, plus some relatively unimportant, if worthy, Bills. However, this Bill seems to enthuse Labour Members more than anything else.

There is a crisis in the rural economy, not only in Leicestershire but in other parts of the country, too. Our farms are in a terrible position. Farm incomes are at their worst for many years and people are leaving the industry. Farmers have always been susceptible to suicide, but the suicide rate has never been worse. Tens of thousands of people are leaving the farming industry each year, so the Government would do far better to concentrate on alleviating the crisis in the countryside than on causing tension and dissension among Members by introducing this Bill.

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This is an inept Bill. I assume that it will receive its Second Reading and that the third option of a total ban, which is supported by the hon. Member for Worcester and his friends, will gain the majority support of Members when the Bill has its Committee stage on the Floor of the House. The Bill is inept because it does not take account of the following problem. My constituency covers the whole of south-east Leicestershire, and there are not enough policemen to cope with the problems that already exist. At weekends--particularly on Fridays and Saturdays--there are often only two policemen on duty to cover approximately 500 square miles.

I intervened when the Home Secretary made his opening speech. If he can persuade me that, as a consequence of the need to increase police numbers to enforce the Bill, there will be sufficient police officers to patrol rural areas to ensure that people do not break the law and to bring them to justice if they do, that will be another matter. However, he was patently unable to say that he had the resources, let alone the political will, to provide sufficient additional policemen in rural England to police the Bill.

Nowhere in the Bill is there a provision that will promote animal welfare. Even if all those who want an end to hunting have animal welfare as their primary motive, it is self-evident that there are better ways to promote animal welfare than those in the Bill. I shall not discuss the Bill's defects in that regard now, but it is clear that, although animal welfare may be in the minds of the supporters of the middle way and the total ban options, provisions to promote it are nowhere to be found in the Bill. If the Bill is to have any meaning, the House should concentrate on promoting animal welfare measures rather than on banning what is currently--I am glad to say--a lawful activity.

We are debating the condemnation of an activity of which some people disapprove. The result will be bad law that is arbitrary in relation to animal welfare and draconian in relation to human activity.

I assume that the total ban option will leave this House and go to another place, but the Bill is unfair and unjust. It overturns a hugely important aspect of our culture--the assumption that one is innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof should be firmly on the prosecution. If the banning option is passed, the Bill will place the burden of proving an exception firmly on the defence. That is unjust. I do not know whether this point has been considered by those who oppose my argument, but the Bill plainly contravenes the European convention on human rights.

No doubt the Bill will be carefully trawled over in the new year, but it is, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, an unnecessary and fundamental attack on the right of an individual to conduct himself in a way that, although it may not be approved of by many others, should not be criminalised. That is a basic matter of civil liberties. For all the fine sophistry and semantics of the so-called moral philosophers on the Government Benches--I have yet to hear a moral argument from them--they have yet to come up with a convincing argument that the Bill will advance the human condition or promote animal welfare. It will do no more than attack and undermine the rights and liberties of the citizen.

I trust that the fanatics on the other side of the argument will pause a little before they unravel this country yet further. I hope that they will pause before they do untold

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damage to an already weak and diffident agricultural community, which is seeing its lifeblood trickle away day by day. If they wish to sustain this country's unity, and to see it enjoy a diversity of people and interests, they should have the good sense and decency not to support the Bill on Second Reading.

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