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Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman referred to coming up against a brick wall on falconry. The League Against Cruel Sports has stated that it believes that the bloodsport of falconry should be outlawed immediately.

Mr. Öpik: At least the league is consistent. The hon. Gentleman had a clearer steer than I did. However, that worries me because it suggests that the argument about the thin end of the wedge has some currency.

When the Burns report was published, the Middle Way Group committed itself to abide by it as far as we reasonably could and to form our own proposals. All three organisations supported the commissioning of the report, but perhaps only the Middle Way Group felt obliged to be loyal to it and to the option that we have helped to create.

The Middle Way Group is proposing an independent Hunting Authority with statutory powers to enforce a code of practice that would be legally binding, and a set of inspectors who could drop in unannounced on any licensed hunt to ensure that that code of practice was being applied. Those who chose to flout the process would be liable to criminal proceedings.

We have tried to balance animal welfare and human rights. We are concerned that many of the arguments against our proposals are based on misinformation. Of course, a small proportion of foxes are killed by dogs, but that activity is concentrated in specific areas. Lord Burns

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said that that was a method preferred in upland areas such as my constituency of Montgomeryshire in mid-Wales, among others.

Mr. Banks: What would be the annual cost of the Hunting Authority and the inspectors that the hon. Gentleman mentioned?

Mr. Öpik: We have made various estimates. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) can interrupt me if I do not get this right, but we reckon that the cost will be about £1 million a year. For that amount, the authority would be able to do everything that we wanted it to. Crucially, that money would be raised from the hunts themselves. In other words, it would cost the taxpayer nothing to implement the Middle Way Group's proposals. I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) for asking me that question.

I mentioned the small percentage of foxes killed by dogs throughout the United Kingdom, but said that a high percentage was killed in that way in areas such as mine. Other misinformation includes the amazing assumption by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) that there is absolutely no pest control element in hunting with dogs. That is blatantly factually incorrect.

Another incorrect statement that the hon. Gentleman made was that the overwhelming majority of people, in every poll, have said that they want a ban on hunting with dogs. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire accurately quoted the statistic that 48 per cent. of people surveyed in an NOP poll last week said that they supported a ban; in other words, the majority were opposed to a ban. In response, the hon. Gentleman simply denied that the poll existed. That is not rational debate. That is not what the public expect to see in this Chamber when we are deciding profoundly important moral issues such as this. Those who are confident of their argument must surely be confident enough to hear the views of others, and be willing to modify their views if something better comes along.

To have an opinion, one must listen to the debate and know what people have said. Few of the hon. Members who will vote on the Second Reading of the Bill have stayed in the Chamber for much of the debate. At one point, the number in here went down to 25. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) can shake his head in an unusual but entertaining fashion, but I am not making a party political point. The Middle Way Group wants, more than anything else, to have a rational, wide-ranging debate in which the hon. Members who go through the Lobby--whether they are for or against the Bill--at least do so having heard the debate. That does not happen if hon. Members do not turn up.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik: No, I shall not.

I am optimistic that we can make progress, because, in fairness to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), he included an exemption for gun packs when I discussed the case with him a few years ago, and I thank him for that. In the same vein, I am delighted that the Home Secretary has seen the merit of option 2 and has committed himself to supporting it, in an independent capacity, at a later stage.

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Every bit of support for the Middle Way Group has been earned. Two and a half years ago we started at zero; according to the opinion poll that I mentioned earlier, we are now at 37 per cent. That support is based on tiny resources, but a strong idea.

The hon. Member for Worcester said that the measure is a wake-up call for humans to have respect for other creatures on the planet. Perhaps the Middle Way Group is saying that this is a wake-up call for humans to have respect for other creatures on the planet including other human beings. We lay the Middle Way Group's proposals before the House and before the country. Animal welfare and human rights must be allowed to live side by side. Tolerance and balance are the touchstones of our proposals for a regulatory authority. The rule of hunting must be allowed to be backed by the rule of law. Whatever hon. Members think, I ask them at least to have the courage and good sense to read what we have said. Then I implore them to vote on the basis of information.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his time.

9.25 pm

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I give broad support to the introduction of the Bill with its three options. However, my support is not unqualified; it is not without reservation. As a Member of Parliament and, before that, as an active campaigner for animal welfare, my first choice or my highest priority for legislative time would not have been this measure. The Burns report confirms a figure that has been widely cited for some years--that hunts are responsible for killing about 20,000 foxes a year.

People with skills in mental arithmetic will be able to multiply that figure by 200; the answer is 4 million. That is the number of sentient beings killed in animal experimentation throughout the country in laboratories to which no one--at least not members of the public--has access. If we multiply that 4 million by 200, we arrive at 800 million. What figure is that? It is the number of broiler chickens bred in this country in inhumane conditions--in windowless sheds, knee-deep in droppings--whose limbs never reach maturity because of their accelerated growth.

In assessing the priorities of those with concerns about animal welfare, it is my view that, if for every fox killed by a person in a red coat, 200 rats and other beings are killed by men and women in white coats, and if for every such laboratory animal killed, 200 hens, which are cruelly bred, are killed for our nutrition, my preferred focus--my priority--would clearly be on farm animal welfare and tighter laboratory experimentation regimes. Nevertheless, we are where we are; and we are there partly because of the priority of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) in autumn 1997. At that time, we witnessed the depth of feeling in our country and the concerns about the practice of hunting.

North-West Leicestershire is part of a county whose name is synonymous with hunting. When people think about hunting, the first hunt that they often identify is the Quorn--perhaps the most famous hunt in the country. Part of the Quorn's territory lies in the northern part of North-West Leicestershire. The southern part of North-West Leicestershire--the rural area--is in the territory of the Atherstone hunt.

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As a Back-Bench Member, I have spoken to a substantial number of people who hunt with those two hunts. I have visited the Kirkby Bellars kennels of the Quorn hunt. I have spoken to a large number of people at advice sessions in rural areas and, like every Member, I have received a substantial postbag covering both sides of the debate.

As has been said, it would be wholly inaccurate, and it would traduce the personalities and attitudes of those who hunt, to dismiss them as heartless, cruel and unaware of the impact of their activities. I did not find that to be true of the people to whom I spoke. They were welcoming and open. They discussed the controls that exist on hunting and they impressed me with their sincerity. However, it did not alter my view about hunting. I am of the contrary view.

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate that that will not have altered the hon. Gentleman's view about hunting, but I wonder whether it should alter his view about whether we should criminalise an activity that is regarded as acceptable by people who he felt, having met them, he had cause to respect. I asked the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) that question, but he seemed to find it difficult and unpleasant. I wonder whether the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) would care to answer.

Mr. Taylor: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has brought me to that point. The argument--which Members who largely populate the Conservative Benches have often used to criticise the Bill--that the Bill would criminalise people who are involved in foxhunting suggests two points. First, it suggests that those people have no power of free will, that they are drawn into an activity that they cannot shake off, that they are addicted to it and that, if it becomes illegal, they will be unable to take a conscious decision to desist from that activity. Secondly, it suggests that the Bill would be retrospective--that it would look back at the activities of which many Labour Members complain and would retrospectively make them illegal and therefore criminalise people who are now going about their normal recreational business. Neither suggestion is borne out by reality.

Members of the Countryside Alliance--who are, of course, the British Field Sports Society dressed up in a flowered smock--have gone through the usual gamut of reasons for allowing hunting to continue. They have spoken about fox population controls. As far as we can tell, the fox population is about 250,000 at its lowest and about 650,000 at its peak. Fox mortality annually is about 400,000 and about 20,000 foxes are killed annually, so 5 per cent. of fox deaths are attributable to hunting. That is not population control by any definition, so that argument should be dismissed with swiftness and contempt.

The Countryside Alliance then began to use a second argument, based on economics: that hunting produces a substantial number of jobs in otherwise hard-pressed rural areas. That argument does not stand up to the light of day. During the development of the debate during this Parliament, triggered by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), it has been suggested that tens of thousands of jobs are involved. Then the figure came down to a very few thousand. The Burns report eventually concluded that, in the very short term, there were direct employment implications for 600 to 700 jobs. Probably,

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even such a loss of jobs would, in the medium term, turn into a net gain as more people turned to drag hunting, or chose to involve themselves in equestrian activities because they were no longer linked to the unpalatable activity of foxhunting.

I was not in this place throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, but I did not hear Conservative Members protest when men--it was predominantly men--were losing their jobs in rural coalfields in their thousands in those years. It would be a very small pit indeed that employed only 700 men--the figure that the Burns report arrives at. Thus, the economic case also falls.

I have mentioned criminalisation. It is argued that if foxhunting is banned there will be social and cultural damage--as if the whole of rural Britain was focused on point-to-point events and fundraising dances. That is simply not true, but there is not enough time left for me to demolish that argument.

We have three options. Option 1 is self-evidently pointless, because it involves self-regulation, which we are told has been present for decades--and it patently has not worked. Yes, some hunts are well run and the majority of the people who hunt are decent, ordinary individuals who do not have the qualities that some critics, especially those on the Labour Benches, would suggest, but self-regulation has not worked, so what is the point of that approach?

I shall deal with the other two options in 30 seconds. Option 2 has a superficial attractiveness, suggesting that tighter regulation and licensing would remove most of the problems with hunting. That is possible, but there would inevitably be a ratchet effect and the regulatory regime would be tightened to such a degree that, in the end, hunting would become unviable, impractical and effectively illegal--option 3, which is the one that I am likely to support when we have that opportunity in the Division Lobby early in 2001.

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