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9.5 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I do not think that I am one of the usual suspects in this debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) described them, but before the general election I declared to the people whom I was seeking to persuade to vote for me exactly where I stood on this issue. A letter setting out my views was regularly displayed in the town centres in my constituency right up to the election, and what I shall say tonight is consistent with what I said then.

The main reason why I hold these views is that I believe that hunting is cruel. I reached that conclusion by studying at great length what the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had to say, and most people respect that organisation. I consider hunting to be unnecessarily cruel. The only real value in these pursuits is pleasure. For me, foxhunting, like cock fighting, bear baiting and badger baiting, belongs in the past. Foxhunting, hare hunting, hare coursing and stag hunting are relics of the past.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the unforeseen consequences of the Bill would be that there would be no more point-to-points held in the Vale of York, for example?

Mr. Blizzard: I do not accept that that is the case and I shall explain why later in my speech.

In the three and a half years or so since I was elected, I have had the opportunity to review my thoughts and to study more information, including the very valuable Burns report. Last night, I looked again at the report and found that in his summary conclusions on welfare and cruelty Burns comes down much more firmly against foxhunting than I had originally thought. He says that it seriously compromises the welfare of the fox and states at some length that the fox is not always killed at a single bite or nip and refers to the stress of the chase. Burns is quite clear that shooting with a rifle is by far the least cruel option.

Until recently, I tended to focus my thoughts on foxhunting and hare hunting, but last week the hare coursing championships that were held near Newmarket in my county of Suffolk were shown on television. Although I have never been particularly emotional about this, I found some of the film on hare coursing, and watching an animal being ripped apart by dogs, really quite repulsive. I have tried to listen carefully to the arguments about why, notwithstanding the cruelty, hunting might be necessary, but one by one the arguments have fallen away under scrutiny.

I spent the best part of a day with the hunt in my constituency, the Waveney Harriers. Before I went out with them I was told quite clearly that hunting was essential to manage the countryside and to keep pests under control, but on the day I was told, "Actually, we do not kill very many. We do not care whether we kill one or not. We enjoy the pleasure of riding and watching the hounds and the sense of pursuit." I fully understand that, but that contradicts the argument that hunting is essential for pest control.

Mr. Grieve: If the hon. Gentleman has studied the Burns report, he will have seen that Burns was particularly

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concerned that hares would disappear most rapidly if hunting were stopped. The hunting system, whether with beagles or harriers, provides a regulatory mechanism while minimising the desire of farmers otherwise to deal with hares as pests.

Mr. Blizzard: Yes, but one of the arguments put to me was that hunting is necessary to keep the hare under control.

I was told that many jobs were at stake, but Burns has well and truly settled that argument with the numbers that he has come up with. He is clear that the economic effects are unlikely to be substantial. I would argue that there need be hardly any job losses if drag hunting is pursued.

I have listened to the argument that hunting is essential for countryside management. I do not have a foxhunt in my constituency. A considerable slice of north-east Suffolk has no foxhunt, and no one has ever written or complained to me that the place is overrun with foxes. I have never known that to be a problem. Indeed, most of the countryside of England does not have foxhunts, and people do not complain about a pestilence of foxes.

I do not believe that hunting is an effective means of controlling foxes. Burns is clear that in lowland areas, such as the one I represent, hunting makes only a minor contribution to the management of the fox population. As I said, I have a hare hunt in my constituency, but Burns is clear that there is little or no need to control the hare--it is at most a minor agricultural pest. The hare hunt covers only a small part of my constituency, and I am not told that there are not enough or too many hares in the rest of the constituency, so I do not follow that argument. However, I noted that Burns said that hunting gives rise to far too many cases of trespass, disruption and disturbance.

One function that the hunt performs which I think is part of countryside management is the removal of fallen stock. I shall deal with that in connection with drag hunting. I do not want to deny people the pleasure of riding in the countryside and of watching and working with hounds. I do not want to stop them enjoying the sense of pursuit. However, I believe that that could be achieved by the development of drag hunting. Burns suggested that there is no incentive to develop drag hunting while we have hunting in its present form.

I want drag hunting to be developed, because I believe that job losses would thereby be avoided, such as those of people who keep the kennels and maintain the horses. Fallen stock could still be collected to be fed to the hounds, because they would be needed even for drag hunting. Drag hunting could also contribute to countryside management.

Sir Richard Body: Drag hunting does not employ people. We can do the work ourselves, and we have only a few hounds. We do not use fallen stock. We feed the hounds with a proprietary brand out of what we call "the bag", because that is cheaper and easier in the long run.

Mr. Blizzard: I have considered the middle way argument, and I was asked tonight on the radio about licensing. All we hear in the Chamber is that there is too much red tape and bureaucracy in this country. I do not want even more red tape to be created by complaints commissions on hunting. If we license hunting there will be a mountain of red tape.

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I want a ban on hunting. Furthermore, I want drag hunting to be developed--perhaps that could become the fourth way. As a result of the Bill, a decision will be taken by democratically elected Members of Parliament on a free vote. That is a powerful mandate. Like me, most people declared their position to their electorate before they came here, and will cast their vote on Second Reading and at further stages. If unelected peers in the other place think that they have the right to block that decision taken on a free vote by democratically elected Members of Parliament who declared their position before they were elected, they are wrong.

9.14 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): As the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) pointed out, the Middle Way Group--perhaps uniquely in the debate on foxhunting--has taken the trouble to listen to people on all sides of the argument and to evolve its ideas accordingly. As the hon. Gentleman noticed, we have built into the Bill a position on hare hunting. We did so partly as a result of his comments, so one could say that there is a little bit of the hon. Gentleman in option 2. I hope that that will make it easier for him to support our proposal. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) was anxious about paperwork. I assure him that he will have to fill in the forms only if he wants to go hunting. If he needs those forms, he can see me later.

There has been much talk about prejudice and accusations have been made on both sides of the House. The assumption of prejudice is underlain by two entirely different starting points that depend on whether one is for or against a ban. Naturally enough, people in animal welfare organisations and Deadline 2000 have a strong sense of the animal welfare aspects of the debate. On the other hand, those who are opposed to a ban base their arguments primarily on civil liberties. Profoundly strong values are involved. In some ways, the strength of feeling on those valid concerns is a compliment to British society. The difficulty is, however, that unless one can find a middle way through which the starting point of the opposing side can be respected, great friction and emotion will tend to cloud the issues.

It is the judgment of the Middle Way Group that the Deadline 2000 proposals are fundamentally and understandably based on animal welfare and do not place sufficient emphasis on the civil liberties question.

Mr. Livsey: My hon. Friend will know that my constituency has nine hunts, which dispose of 2,000 foxes per annum. They have done so for the past 30 years, during which the area has maintained a fox population at the same level. A separate aspect of cruelty exists in respect of those foxes, as they slaughter £500,000 worth of lambs every year.

Mr. Öpik: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about an aspect of animal welfare that has not been discussed by Deadline 2000. The fox is a cause of cruelty in the countryside. Unsurprisingly, that issue has not been resolved in this short debate and I ask Deadline 2000 to give it serious consideration.

Other contradictions arise from not dealing consistently with the civil liberties question. Why ban hunting with dogs, but not angling? That is a blatant contradiction. The

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RSPCA itself says that fish feel pain. Some hon. Members will own cats, which predate mammals. One does not have to keep a cat as a pet, but if one does so, the likelihood is that it will kill mice, birds and so on. What is the position on falconry? I have tried to find an answer to that question, but have been stonewalled by the League against Cruel Sports. Such inconsistencies are directly caused by failure to take a holistic view of the question of animal welfare versus civil liberties.

In fairness and for the sake of balance, I point out that members of the pro-hunting lobby tend to be so anxious about civil liberties that the animal abuses that have been catalogued are sometimes overshadowed by their desire to protect the individual. That is why they concentrate on jobs, which are to some extent a side issue. Labour Members are right to say that jobs are not the core concern in the debate.

The Middle Way Group was established on the basis of those contradictions. We want to find a way of balancing animal welfare considerations with those on human rights. We have tried to do so because extreme legislation is not good legislation. The crucial point is that not one of the three organisations that are involved in the debate is questioning the necessity of killing foxes in some circumstances. The question is not whether we kill foxes, but how, which makes the whole debate tactical. The Burns report was set up to ask that same question: in what circumstances, if any, would it be acceptable to hunt foxes with dogs?

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